Al Cannon Detention Center (copy)

The main entrance to the Al Cannon Detention Center Thursday, december 6, 2018. Brad Nettles/Staff

For too many years, the answer to jail overcrowding was simple: Build bigger jails. But that outdated default solution unnecessarily burdens taxpayers and ignores longstanding systemic problems with incarceration.

It also fails to consider a fundamental question: Who really needs to go to jail?

The Charleston County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council studied that question and other related issues. The group’s work spawned reforms that have yielded promising results over the past three years and caused many to rethink their positions on how we approach criminal justice.

Notably, the programs lowered the number of low-level offenders who get locked up in the Al Cannon Detention Center. That has helped reduce the jail population by nearly 25 percent, a welcome result for petty offenders, law enforcement officials and taxpayers.

The smart shift in strategy has had the most obvious impact at the jail, where the county built a $100 million addition a decade ago to deal with a growing number of inmates. The expensive building project that boosted capacity to 2,112 inmates was part of an unsustainable cycle, based on the notion of doing things a certain way just because that’s the way they’ve always been done.

When the group dug into the numbers in 2014, it found that a majority of the jail’s bookings were for relatively minor offenses such as marijuana possession, trespassing, misdemeanor shoplifting, public intoxication or open container violations, The Post and Courier’s Gregory Yee reported.

These minor offenders were taking up valuable space and resources better reserved for serious offenders. So officers began issuing citations for these lower-level crimes in most cases if no serious offenses were involved. Other forward-looking reforms also include efforts to reduce racial disparities, use data to make better decisions, and provide more tools and resources for court and for those with mental health issues. More people in need of treatment programs are being steered toward help instead of being incarcerated.

“Charleston County has leaped ahead of the state and the rest of the Southeast by forming CJCC and asking hard questions that needed to have been asked generations before,” Charleston County Public Defender Ashley Pennington said.

By 2017, there had been a 51 percent reduction in people booked on a single charge involving these five offenses, and a 46 percent increase in officers issuing citations for them rather than making an arrest. That’s helped break up bottlenecks in the system. These and other initiatives also have helped lead to a 42 percent reduction in the number of people who are booked into the jail at least three times in two years.

One of the keys to the program’s continued success will be funding. The reforms were seeded with $4.95 million in grant money from the MacArthur Foundation, but officials are aiming for self-sufficiency through cost savings and other grants. Finding other funding avenues must be a priority to prevent the hopeful reform effort from losing momentum.

While these positive changes are noteworthy, it’s important to ensure that people continue to be held responsible for breaking the law and that the public’s safety is never compromised. It also makes sense that otherwise law-abiding people accused of these minor offenses do not clog up the criminal justice system. The Charleston County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council’s programs are a good start in that direction.

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