Justice reform efforts praised

Plans to revamp Charleston County’s criminal justice system and reduce incarceration rates are a step in the right direction that should be implemented statewide, according to the ACLU of South Carolina.

“Whether the tasks set forth can be accomplished remains to be seen. However, we do hope for the best and will monitor the progress as it evolves,” said the organization’s executive director, Shaundra Young Scott.

The initiative, unveiled last week as a three-year plan targeting discrepancies and inefficiencies in the system, has been met with similar praise from a number of community leaders.

The Rev. Nelson Rivers, pastor of Charity Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston and a leader of the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network, said he was surprised and encouraged by what he described as “a radical change in policing.”

Dot Scott, head of the NAACP’s Charleston branch, said she was pleased and pointed to the death of 50-year-old Joyce Curnell as proof that change is needed.

Curnell died last year at Cannon Detention Center a day after being picked up on a bench warrant for failure to pay court fines. Her family has threatened a lawsuit, alleging that Curnell’s death could have been prevented had the jail’s medical staff followed a doctor’s orders and provided the woman with enough water to combat a stomach illness and dehydration.

“This is part of the problem. We’re running people down for a bench warrant arrest. We tend to lock folks up for what I call petty crimes, and what it does — nobody talks about it. But it helps to feed this system,” Dot Scott said. “The fact that as a country our incarceration rate is worse than any other place tells us we have a problem.”

The county’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council created the plan after devoting a year to analyzing data provided by local law enforcement, the 9th Circuit Solicitor’s Office and other agencies. Its findings detailed a system that disproportionately impacted blacks and other minorities and filled the jail with nonviolent offenders whom authorities said likely would have never fallen into a life of crime had they not suffered from substance abuse, mental health problems, homelessness or other social issues.

The Cannon Detention Center reported 26,660 bookings in 2014, the first year of the council’s 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.

Blacks were arrested 2.83 times as often as whites that same year in Charleston County, the data showed. They accounted for 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 council proposed reducing the jail’s population by emphasizing ticketing when appropriate rather making arrests for minor crimes. It also hopes to open a “triage center” where offenders can receive services to fight addiction, unemployment and meet other needs.

Other areas of focus include creating a uniform approach to making arrests to curb discrepancies, launching an automated court-date reminder system to cut back on bench warrants, enhancing the bond-setting process and reducing the amount of time it takes to resolve criminal cases.

The council submitted its findings to the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation with hopes of receiving a $3.4 million grant to move forward with its plans. Regardless of whether the dollars are awarded, Shaundra Young Scott said, a fund needs to be established to help provide indigent offenders with a public defender at bond hearings.

“My initial thoughts are that this plan is a positive step in the right direction in an effort to make significant changes to how many African-Americans are arrested for nonviolent crimes and over-incarceration in our jail system. ... These checks and balances would also provide protection to police so as to limit exposure to their own internal biases,” she said.

Though highly praised, the effort isn’t without criticism.

John Blackmon, president of the support group Tri-County Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 3, said the council was heading in the right direction, but that he was concerned about the use of a risk-based decision tool in place of officer discretion.

Each situation is unique, he said, and we must “place our trust in the hands of the law enforcement officer” who is on the street.

“To create unilateral policy as to who to arrest and who to release is counterproductive to the safety of the citizens we have sworn to protect,” Blackmon said. Dot Scott and Rivers were both members of a committee that helped develop the plan. They questioned, though, the diversity of its leadership.

Minorities are allowed to “come to the table,” Scott said, “but when we come, the entire leadership doesn’t look like the people you’re supposed to be fixing the problem for. We know that the majority of the incarcerated folks are young black males, but the head of the table doesn’t have the diversity there. For someone like me, I’m saying, ‘Why not?’ ”

Rivers said diversity isn’t solely about the number of minorities involved in the county’s plans, but about input and perspective, as well.

“There are some black folk who work for the department who can’t be as frank or as candid as the community would be. The ones who are being over-incarcerated, they should have a say in this,” he said.

When asked to address their concerns, Assistant Sheriff Mitch Lucas, the council’s chairman, said the group sought out those in charge of the criminal justice system’s many facets.

“If we have a white person that’s been elected to something or appointed to something, we don’t have any control over that,” he said, adding that multiple minorities and women are involved in the group.

Officer discretion won’t be removed from the equation when making arrests, Lucas said. Rather, they will be given access to tools and computer programs that will strengthen decisions beyond just the officer’s gut feeling.

Future meetings will also be announced on the council’s website so that community members can be involved in the process if they desire, he said.

The success of the initiative depends on the compliance of law enforcement officers, Rivers said. He said he was skeptical about whether that would occur.

The North Charleston Police Department, for example, historically has “been the least cooperative and most confrontational of all the departments,” Rivers said.

Rivers said he tried to discuss transparency with Police Chief Eddie Driggers a week before former North Charleston officer Michael Slager shot Walter Scott in the back as he fled a traffic stop, but the chief denied a problem existed.

“Past performance is the best predictor of future conduct,” Rivers said.

Any cooperation from the city would first have to come from Mayor Keith Summey, Rivers said. Responding to a request for comment that was directed toward the mayor’s office, police spokesman Spencer Pryor said that the city’s police and legal departments and municipal court have all been active participants in the criminal justice council since its inception.

“This collaboration has led to the department initiating steps (in its goal) to cite and release subjects for minor offense violations,” Pryor said.

As evidence, Pryor said that Driggers was present during a news conference the council held to announce its plans. The council expects to hear in April whether it will be awarded the grant money it needs to pursue the effort.

“Whether we get the MacArthur grant or not, we’re not going to go backwards on this. We’re going to keep moving forward, doing the things we can do,” Lucas said.

Reach Christina Elmore at 843-937-5908.