CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Criminal justice leaders in Charleston county are still facing challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Charleston County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, an organization working to improve the criminal justice system in the county, held a virtual forum on Tuesday to discuss COVID-19 impacts.
Click here to watch the full community forum.
Capt. Jason Bruder works in the Charleston Police Department and is the Chair for the CJCC. He said the goal of the forum was to answer a variety of questions they have gotten from the community about the response to the pandemic.
“Most of these groups, especially on the government side, we’re working for the community,” Bruder said. “Hearing their concerns and being able to speak to those and hopefully ease those concerns, is what we’re all about.”
The panel included Charleston Co. Sheriff Kristin Graziano, 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, Maj. Dorothy Harris of the Sheriff Al Cannon Detention Center, Bruder, and LaTasha Foggie, the director of nursing at WellPath.
After looking at data from the South Carolina Court Administration, Wilson said cases that are pending are getting older.
The backlog in cases has been happening for a long time, but officials say they have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic with hearing delays and courts shutting down.
“We’re going to be stuck for a while, but we’re trying to make the best use of that time as we can,” Wilson said. " We’re [also] going to have a challenge when we come out working with the court, deciding which cases deserve priority and which cases should be trials.”
Wilson said the cases that are being held up are serious crimes, not lower-level crimes, and misdemeanors.
“The backlog that’s building is largely made of cases that are absolutely necessary and I think that, moving forward, is going to give us an opportunity of what we can necessary moving forward,” she said.
Officials with WellPath and the county jail said the number of people held at the jail has decreased since the pandemic started.
Since October 2020, there have been 1,116 COVID-19 tests performed for patients, staff, contractors, and law enforcement agency staff at the jail, with 116 COVID -19 positive tests.
The detention center has implemented safety features, like PPE equipment and COVID-19 checkups for staff as they enter the building, to prevent the virus from entering and spreading throughout the jail.
For staff or patients that present any signs of COVID, they are immediately isolated and tested, as well as anyone around that person who may have been exposed.
The pandemic has also led the detention center to get rid of some programs for inmates, like the GED program, to reduce the risk for the virus to spread.
“We just decided that we would try to see how that would go ‚but we’re looking at coming back online with a lot of our programs, " Harris said. “The determination will be how well we do with making sure that the inmates are safe within the facility.”
Graziano says that although backlogs are expected in higher level crime cases, local law enforcement can deal with lower-level cases differently.
“Particularly in lower-level cases we can set those in advance, so they don’t move through the system as quickly as we’d like, but we’re also not clogging up the system and having to reset those cases,” Graziano said.
In other cases, they can determine that an arrest is not necessary, which also leads to less people in the county jail.
Bruder said although the pandemic isn’t reason why the less people are being put in jail, the pandemic has highlighted the work the organization has already been working on.
It has also given them more areas to focus on and spotlighted problem areas within the criminal justice system.
One of CJCC’s initiatives from the beginning was to reduce the average daily jail population, and make sure cases are being handled in an efficient manner.
“One of the things you’ll see as a positive is that Charleston [police] was already having some ‘cite and release’ instead of taking everyone to jail, we started that a few years ago,” Bruder said. “That wasn’t a new process on the law enforcement .But those cases still have to be prosecuted and they still have to be handled, so just moving those things along are going to take time.”