Charleston County officials tasked with reducing the jail population and making court proceedings more efficient appear to have made significant strides toward their goal.
The County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council's report showed a 30 percent drop in jail admissions from 2014 through 2016. Officials plan to meet on Thursday at Charleston Police Department headquarters on Lockwood Drive to celebrate the progress and mark the one-year anniversary of receiving a $2.25 million grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said officers now have more options to recommend social services, drug rehabilitation or mental health treatment, when appropriate.
"Not all these people need to be in the criminal justice system," Wilson said. "People with mental health problems, substance abuse issues, nonviolent (offenders); in the past there's been nowhere to go except for jail, or very few options."
But the public shouldn't confuse falling booking numbers with lax law enforcement, she said.
Kristy Danford, the council's project director, called the progress "remarkable."
The council's work is to reduce the incarcerated population at the Cannon Detention Center in North Charleston by 25 percent from May 2016 to April 2019, Danford said.
The data, released March 31 in the council's 2016 annual report, shows that nearly all of the county's 11 most frequent booking charges fell in frequency between 2014 and 2016.
Bookings for simple possession of marijuana, the most frequent charge encountered in the jail, dropped by 52 percent, according to the report. Driving under the influence fell by 7 percent and public intoxication fell by 39 percent.
Several other areas showed improvement.
The number of criminal charges made by the Charleston County Sheriff's Office and the Charleston, North Charleston and Mount Pleasant Police departments fell by 28 percent, the report said. There was also a 14 percent uptick in officers issuing citations for violations when possible rather than taking offenders to jail.
African-Americans were booked 3.41 times more often than whites in 2014 but that number improved to 2.33 times more often than whites in 2016, according to the report.
"The leadership here has really rolled up their sleeves," Danford said. "What we see is progress at all ends."
Wilson said she's looking forward to upcoming initiatives spearheaded by the council, such as a system that will let law enforcement upload evidence and other case-related material to share with prosecutors and defense attorneys — a process known in legal terms as discovery.
Under the current system, discovery involves physical media, she said. If attorneys need to collect body camera footage or lengthy voice recordings for their case, that can mean waiting a long time to copy files onto a flash drive or compact disc. The new system should be in place by the end of the year and will streamline the process.
"It's helping us become paperless," she said. "It frees up legal assistants and investigators to do other work."
Another initiative — a text reminder system for defendants — could help reduce the number of costly and time-consuming measures like bench warrants, Wilson said.
Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen said in a statement that he is excited about the progress made in the first year after receiving the grant.
"This demonstrates the value of strong partnerships by all members of the criminal justice system and how using alternative methods to jail can address concerns without compromising community public safety," Mullen said.
Charleston Black Lives Matter released a statement that both praised and was critical of elements in the report.
Efforts to address the root causes of people coming into the criminal justice system, reduce instances of repeat offenders and give law enforcement officers discretion to employ options other than jail for some low-level charges are encouraging, according to the statement.
The activist group, however, said it has concerns related to use of bail and of arrest warrants allegedly used as "threats to push for payments," and touched on what they saw as a lack of community involvement in the council because only 40 people applied to fill the 10 community representative spots.
Danford, in an interview prior to BLM's statement, said that they aim to boost community engagement throughout 2017.
"The community representatives are still narrowing in on what they'd like to accomplish," she said.