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Charleston County jailings halved, low-level arrests down since 2014, CJCC study finds

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After months of litigation, a federal judge has dismissed a class-action lawsuit demanding that South Carolina prisons free many inmates to prevent coronavirus' spread. Dreamstime

Jail bookings have been reduced by half and the inmate population dipped by 20 percent between 2014 and 2019, according to the Charleston County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council's annual report.

The report released Friday analyzes inmate population statistics, with a focus on repeat inmates and pretrial incarcerations.

"The data, and our tracking of that, has evolved over time," CJCC Project Director Kristy Pierce Danford said. "We wanted to get to the underlying root issue."

CJCC's deliberate, data-guided approach has allowed the organization to effectively institute criminal justice reform, according to the report, which was released on Friday. 

The Al Cannon Detention Center's average daily population is down 20 percent since 2014. Sentenced inmates were the biggest drop, at 83 percent, from 167 in 2014 to 28 in 2019.

Now, a higher percentage of the jail's population is pretrial, though even those numbers have dipped 9 percent, from 944 to 860.

And bookings were more than halved in that period, from 24,729 to 11,885.

The inmates who were booked in 2019 spent a longer time behind bars, with the total average rising from 12 days to 29. The greatest increase was for sentenced inmates, whose average stays rose from 19 days to 72.

The kinds of charges that land people behind bars have shifted as well.

Summary court charges are no longer the lion's share of court proceedings for inmates after a 67 percent drop to 8,803 in 2019. Drug, mental health and family court cases were halved, while probation and parole cases increased by a little over a quarter.

General sessions cases decreased by 4 percent and became the most common type of case.

The charges that send people to jail most often continue to  be low-level offenses, with driving under the influence in the top spot. Drug and gun possession, failure to pay child support and shoplifting remained in the top 10.

The CJCC successfully tried to reduce single-charge bookings for infractions including simple marijuana possession, open-container violations, public intoxication, trespassing and misdemeanor shoplifting. Those charges — targeted by CJCC because they were the most frequently occurring charges and had disproportionate impacts on minority residents, Danford said — dropped from 1,880 in 2018 to 1,338 in 2019.

Law enforcement officers have increasingly opted to divert homeless and mentally ill people from the jail, the report found, especially with the establishment of a new facility in 2017. That's helped tamp down the number of familiar faces in the jail, often homeless or mentally ill residents.

Charleston has a high level of access to jail alternatives for those people, Danford said, and recognizing police discretion to handle cases based on their knowledge of the community helps further the goal of criminal justice reform. 

"With every report we learn more and have an opportunity to sharpen our focus," Danford said. "We can be more deliberate going forward."

Read the full report here.

Reach Sara Coello at 843-937-5705 and follow her on Twitter @smlcoello.

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