Criminal justice reform in Charleston County leads to an unprecedented drop in jail bookings

Charleston County News

CHARLESTON COUNTY, S.C. (WCBD) – The Charleston County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (CJCC) is working to make the justice system more equitable for everyone, and their efforts are having an impact.

Formed in 2015, the first two major recommendations resulted in an unprecedented drop in the number of bookings at the Al Cannon Detention Center over the last few years.

“Our jail today is far more used for more serious crime and not the misdemeanor, municipal magistrate type charge,” said Kristy Danford, the CJCC Project Director.

The reason for that is the CJCC worked with the “big 4” law enforcement agencies in Charleston County (Charleston County Sheriff’s Office, Charleston, North Charleston, and Mount Pleasant Police Departments) to agree not to automatically bring people accused of five summary level charges to the jail.

Those misdemeanor charges include simple possession of marijuana, shoplifting, trespassing, open container, and public intoxication.

“An officer has the discretion to issue a citation, like a ticket and send the person on their way, so they can still be accountable for the charge, but not necessarily have their whole life disrupted by bringing them to a costly jail,” said Danford.

For law enforcement it meant a major change in philosophy.

“They still have to appear before the court,” said MPPD Deputy Chief Stan Gragg. “In the long term it’s getting the officers back in service quicker, it’s not tying up the jail resources, it’s not starting that cycle of taking somebody to jail where they have to post a bond to get out, and if they can’t post a bond they’re in there and that compromises their employment, it could compromise their housing, or their family situation.”

It has resulted in a 73% reduction in jail check-ins on those charges since 2014. And according to CJCC stats, a 93% reduction in bookings for simple possession of marijuana.

For those who do end up in jail, the council focused on making sure the bond court process is more equitable by recommending a public defender be present for anyone facing charges.

Keith Smalls, who spent 19 years in the South Carolina Department of Corrections system, is now a part of the CJCC and says it is a game changer.

“Nobody really plans on being arrested, so likely nine out of 10 are going in front of the judge without an attorney and now because of the CJCC that initial hearing has an attorney present and that is humongous,” said Smalls.

The CJCC is working on its net phase which focuses on what happens after someone is arrested. That will include what leads to recidivism and what can be done to address those issues.

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