Charleston Co. criminal justice reform group nears goal to reduce jail population

VIDEO: Charleston Co. criminal justice reform group nears goal to reduce jail population

CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - The Charleston County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council has almost reached its goal to reduce the jail population by 25 percent.

It’s been an ongoing effort since the group, focused on criminal justice reform and public safety, was granted $2.25 million by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in 2016.

The hope was that the county’s CJCC would serve as a model for the state and the nation, and it remains one of the first in South Carolina to implement reform measures that could change the way America thinks about and uses jails.

The work has paid off so far with an overall reduction in the jail population of about 24 percent, from 1111 local inmates to 842, according to Deputy Chief Stan Gragg of the Mount Pleasant Police Department. He serves as the CJCC’s chairman.

“We don’t want to break people down to dollars and cents but what we are trying to do is offset the costs of the savings and utilize it for other purposes,” Gragg said.

For years, the Al Cannon Detention Center has been one of the highest budget items for Charleston County public safety, and it remains so into fiscal year 2020. According to the county’s budget narrative, more than $40 million in personnel and operating costs have been approved.

While CJCC’s efforts could improve the efficiency and effective use of the jail, the collaboration among community leaders is focused more intensely on taking a hard look at the societal issues inflating those costs.

The group has committed its work to using data-driven strategies to create alternatives to jail for low level offenders with mental health and substance use disorders and to enhance the pretrial process.

“Sometimes its easier to take somebody to jail than dig deeper into the problem of what got them there to begin with,” Gragg said. “It’s us taking a different approach and different look at how we utilize our jail resources, ensuring that those jail resources are available for those people that are a danger to our community and not being utilized on those people we could possibly help in other ways.”

The CJCC’s grant from the MacArthur Foundation runs out in Sept. 2020, and leaders are already looking ahead to figure out how they can fund their work in the future. Gragg said the biggest challenge the CJCC faces is getting people to understand the group’s mission and plans.

“There are a lot of moving parts for getting someone into the system and getting someone out of the system,” Gragg said. “Criminal justice reform is more than just looking at our jail use. It’s about societal reform and how we deal with our problems within our communities.”

Gragg believes the CJCC has made great strides to create resources and systems that address issues like mental health and substance use disorders.

“I never thought when I first got in law enforcement we’d be sitting here talking about how we are using a jail,” Gragg said. “Now, one of our goals is looking at the disparity and disproportionality, if it exists, throughout our system. Really taking a close look at the individuals and where they are in the process and how the process affects them.”

Gragg said jail time, even after a minor offense, can create a negative cycle for the individual by leading to job loss, issues with finances, housing, or family.

“We don’t necessarily think about that when we look at that person as a number, but we have to think about that when we start looking at that as a whole person within the system and ensure the system is fair and just for everybody,” Gragg said.

He believes this approach is a return to true “community policing,” getting to the heart of the problem and not just dealing with the incident.

“The system, for lack of a better term, is broken,” Gragg said. “We were willing to take a chance and admit that one we had a problem, and two we’re willing to do something about it.”

Critics have questioned how some of the council’s measures may impact recidivism rates, especially in terms of personal recognizance bonds. They are sometimes referred to as “get of jail free cards” because they do not require a defendant to pay any money to get out of jail. Gragg maintained the council’s efforts are meant for low level offenders, not individuals who could be a danger to the community.

“Everybody is entitled to a bond,” Gragg said. “One of the things that we’ve looked at through this process is the risk of re-offending, whether you have a cash bond or a personal recognizance bond, and the numbers. When it comes to cash bond versus personal recognizance, the failure rate is about the same. So, for those people that would question whether or not we’re encouraging them to get out on bond, that’s why we’ve got the risk assessment instrument in place.”

The risk assessment instrument is a tool Charleston County judges can utilize as they consider bond amounts and types. It statistically rates the individual on a spectrum of low risk to high risk to help judges decide how a bond should be set.

“The CJCC is not moving to get those people that should be in jail out of jail, we’re looking at making sure those jail resources are available for those people that are at a risk for, one, flight or a danger to our community,” Gragg said. “Nothing works 100 percent of the time.”

The CJCC is set to launch an online, community survey on Monday, Oct. 21. Leaders want to hear about the community’s perspectives and priorities for the criminal justice system. It will remain open until Nov.1. Meanwhile, CJCC leaders are working to secure future funding for the programs and tools they’ve created before the council’s grant money runs out next year.

“I’m hoping for us to continue, whether it be funded by MacArthur or other funding resources. We’re looking at our long-term goals, doing a cost benefit analysis for future sustainment,” Gragg said. “There’s been a lot of work put into this, been a lot of effort, a lot of commitment from the community to get us to where we’re at, and it would be a shame to see all that stop because we run out of funding.”

The programs and systems CJCC has implemented are only available to local inmates, not the federal detainees the Al Cannon Detention Center shelters for the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement and other federal agencies.

The inmates are sentenced or charged with federal offenses and detained while awaiting trial or sentencing, awaiting designation and transport to a BOP facility, a hearing on their immigration status, or deportation.

The contract is projected to provide Charleston County Sheriff’s Office with $4 million for FY2020 to pay for the housing and care of federal prisoners. According to the county’s budget narrative, CCSO’s revenues “reflected an increase in the amount of per diem reimbursement from the federal government for ‘holding’ federal prisoners due to an anticipated rate increase.”

However, Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon has said he planned to stop taking in ICE detainees that are not arrested in South Carolina because of the burden the operation had put on the budget and staffing.

“They are distributing detainees all over the country, and we’ve been one of the ones that said we would accept some of them,” Cannon said in March. “We are going to tell ICE that, for the time being, we are going to not take those extra. We are going to take the ones here locally and maybe the ones from around the state.”

Copyright 2019 WCSC. All rights reserved.