News 2 I-Team: Jail reform would save millions of dollars

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Al Cannon Jail_225723

Research is happening right now in the Lowcountry to reduce our local jail population, which would save taxpayers millions of dollars.

Research released by the Charleston County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council revealed 70% of the inmates at Al Cannon Detention Center are not convicted of the crime of which they are charged.

“Missing one day or two days of work can be difference in somebody paying rent or being homeless,” Judge Ellen Steinberg told the News 2 I-Team.

She is part of the group focused on reforming how we use our jail. The Charleston County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (CJCC) aims to lower bookings by 25 percent, reduce time served awaiting trial, and address racial disproportionality.

“Right now we are at a point in this country where everybody realizes we need to pay more attention to how people are treated in the criminal justice system,” Judge Steinberg explained to investigator, Rebecca Collett.

Specifically the released by the group this year highlights the arrest rate of black people compared to white people.

African-Americans are 4.84 times more likely to be arrested and booked into the detention center than their white counterparts.  The national average is 4.37 times more often.

The group outlined six steps to take over the next three years to overhaul how non-violent offenders are handled in the jail and court system.

Those steps include reforming police practices; creating a center to be used in lieu of jail; launching a court reminder system to decrease arrests for missing court; updating  the bond setting process; reducing time to get to court; and sharing data between agencies. The group also wants to allow defendants access to attorneys faster.

The court reminder system would have made a huge difference to 80-year-old Jean Gaston.  She was charged with stealing a $7 item from a local Dollar General.  When she missed court, police arrested her.  The average night stay in jail costs taxpayers $94.51.

The group was awarded a $2.25 million grant to start the process.

As part of their research, the CJCC told the I-Team that an average of 73 bookings per day into the Charleston County jail are for low level offense including shoplifting, failure to pay child support, public intoxication, and loitering.  These low level offenders occupied 78,345 days in jail. The CJCC says there are better, more cost effective alternatives for those offenders than jail

Project Director, Kristy Danford, says there are better alternatives to jail. The group has already piloted the use of “cite and release” for police officers.

“Officers have the option not to take someone to jail. Previously they didn’t have that option,” Danford explained.  “You give them more tools so they can be more responsive to the community they work with every day.”

Another alternative is a triage center.

“People that churn in and out for low level crimes like trespassing or open container often have chronic pervasive issues like homelessness or mental illness.”

The report identifies 631 “frequent flyers” booked into the jail five or more times between 2013 and 2014.

While determining the exact savings to taxpayers is complicated, the Vera Institute of Justice gives an example. Between 2008 and 2014, the inmate population in Hampden County, Massachusetts, which is similar in size to Charleston County, declined by 30 percent. The total annual jail savings was $16 million.

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