Gilliard wants to visit Haitians in county jail

Sheriff Al Cannon Detention Center on Leeds Avenue in North Charleston. File/Staff

Charleston County officials on Thursday unveiled a three-year plan to improve the local criminal justice system by reducing over-incarceration and streamlining court proceedings.

The county’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council created the multipronged initiative after analyzing data provided by local law enforcement, the 9th Circuit Solicitor’s Office and other agencies.

The council submitted its plan to the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in response to a challenge from the organization that encouraged the nation to change the way it viewed and used jails.

Charleston County is seeking a $3.4 million grant from the foundation to fund the personnel and other resources needed to move forward with its initiative.

“I would have never believed that I would see anything of this magnitude in a local criminal justice system in my lifetime,” said Assistant Sheriff Mitch Lucas, the council’s chairman. “This is really a substantial step in the right direction on so many levels that we would have never been able to do had the MacArthur Foundation not issued this challenge.”

The county was one of 20 jurisdictions that received a $150,000 grant in May to improve the local criminal justice system. It used those dollars, in part, to hire a project director, Kristy Danford, to help oversee the initiative, officials said.

County officials spent hundreds of hours sifting through data to identify racial and ethnic disproportions, disparities in criminal justice decisions and to establish a baseline of statistics that detailed incarceration rates and other areas with apparent room for improvement.

The Cannon Detention Center reported 26,660 bookings in 2014, the first year of the analysis. The top charges were low-level offenses including simple possession of marijuana, loitering, public intoxication, shoplifting, driving with a suspended license, no driver’s license, open container and trespassing, the council reported.

Blacks were arrested 2.83 times as often as whites that same year in Charleston County, the data showed. They accounted for six times the number of arrests for violent crimes compared to whites, 2.71 times the number of arrests for nonviolent crimes and 5 times the arrests for criminal bench warrants.

The county was 67.7 percent white and 28.6 percent black in 2014, according to census data.

The trends appeared to be consistent with a national study conducted by the FBI that found blacks were “more likely to be arrested in almost every city for almost every type of crime,” the council reported.

The council plans to reduce incarceration rates for low-level offenses by using citations and tickets instead of booking individuals at the jail. It also hopes to steer people toward a triage center where they can receive services to address substance abuse, mental health and other issues that often contribute to repeat offenses.

Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson emphasized that the council has no intention of letting dangerous people roam free on the street.

“We are talking about reducing the jail population for nonviolent offenders,” Wilson said. “People who are more likely to (not be) involved in the criminal justice system at all but for addiction, poverty, things like that.”

While 2015 was “a rough year for this community,” Wilson said the initiative was not a reaction to high-profile cases during that time, such as the shooting of Walter Scott in April by former North Charleston officer Michael Slager. The council began laying out the framework for its plans in January of last year, she said.

The council’s other areas of focus include:

Creating a uniform approach to making decisions to arrest.

Finding alternatives to incarceration for people dealing with unemployment, substance abuse, mental health issues, medical problems and other social issues.

Launching an automated court-date reminder system to reduce the need for criminal bench warrants.

Enhancing the bond-setting process.

Reducing the time required to resolve criminal cases.

Creating a centralized database that local agencies can use to share information.

“There is a huge difference in this effort,” Rawl said. “We as a community ... have banded together to go after a grant to achieve something that we all agree should be achieved.”

The county expects to learn in April whether it will be awarded the additional grant money.

In addition to Lucas and Wilson, attendees at Thursday’s news conference included Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon, Charleston County Council Vice Chairman Vic Rawl, Charleston Police Maj. Naomi Broughton, North Charleston Police Chief Eddie Driggers, Mount Pleasant Police Chief Carl Ritchie and other local leaders. The county’s plans have also garnered the support of the entire state Supreme Court, officials said.

Reach Christina Elmore at 843-937-5908.