Although the COVID pandemic temporarily has reduced its ability to engage the public, Charleston County’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council is relying in part on community representatives to guide its actions.
The council consists of numerous criminal justice system leaders as well as local advocates of reform who represent various interests. During a virtual meeting April 27 meant to introduce current community representatives, the council welcomed the notion of enlarging the group.
“The mission of the CJCC is to assist in making sustainable, data-driven improvements to Charleston County’s criminal justice system and thereby improve public safety and community well-being,” said convener Magistrate Ellen Steinberg.
Founded in 2015, CJCC already has plucked some low-hanging fruit, prioritizing alternatives to jail for those enduring homelessness, mental illness, substance abuse and other problems.
CJCC members call it “diverting and deflecting” — providing assistance to certain people in need, and issuing warnings or tickets rather than arresting them. The initial goal was to reduce the jail population.
From 2014 to 2020, local bookings decreased 62 percent; the number of individuals processed in the criminal justice system fell 63 percent; and the local jail population declined 38 percent.
CJCC is off to a good start.
Administrator Kristy Danford said the goals are expanding now to include reforms to bookings, bond and reentry, case processing, recidivism and racial disparities.
Much of this agenda was set with help from community representatives.
“It puts a personal face on a large collaboration,” Danford said in an earlier interview.
Public meetings will be held quarterly. But CJCC members meet more often in workgroups focused on particular issues.
Current community representatives are:
- Anthony Bishara, a psychology professor at the College of Charleston.
- Michael Bowman, president of Father to Father Inc.
- Adrian Cain, senior vice president of leadership and programs at the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce.
- Lydia Cotton, Hispanic community advocate.
- Areyonna Keels, an attorney and bilingual victim advocate.
- Marcus Tyler McDonald, lead organizer of Charleston Black Lives Matter.
- Otha Meadows, president and CEO of the Charleston Urban League.
- Alexandra E. Menegakis, criminal defense attorney with Adams & Bischoff.
- Keith Smalls, founder and director of My Community’s Keeper Mentor Group.
- Adrian C. Swinton, project planner for the MUSC Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Strategic Plan.
- The Rev. David Truluck, executive director of SHIELD Ministries.
- Lauren Williams, a criminal defense attorney with Williams & Walsh.
Organizers want members of the public to attend the quarterly meetings, interact with community representatives, and consider joining the effort.
Williams said she hopes the cash bond industry needs profound scrutiny. Cash bonds “should become rare,” she said.
She also advocated for alternative courts, such as a mental health court, drug addiction court, or homelessness court where people can find help and structure rather than imprisonment.
“A day in jail can flip somebody’s life upside down,” she said.
Truluck said successful reform depends on addressing many issues together, and on recognizing that the criminal justice system impacts many people directly and indirectly.
Bishara said young people today are sensitized to social injustice, even when it doesn’t impact them directly, and many of them are ready to act.
Cotton said that effective change depends on grassroots efforts and an empowered community able to influence how things are done.
“You need to let the community lead,” she said.
In an earlier interview, Meadows said criminal justice reform ultimately requires change to policing policies and practices.
“Police determine who gets arrested, and that’s the start of journey through criminal justice system,” he said. Interventions are needed before people get in trouble, and that requires an enormous coordinated effort that addresses poverty and unemployment, education, access to affordable health care and housing, transportation, child care and more.
“It really requires us to look at it in a very holistic way,” he said. “It’s all connected in some way or another to criminal justice.”