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Editorial: Serious crime is on the rise; here are steps Charleston County can (and should) take

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Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg (second from right) talks with Police Chief Luther Reynolds (right) and others at the scene of a shooting Wednesday involving several victims near Hanover and Johnson streets in the city’s East Side neighborhood. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Five people shot last week, two critically, on Charleston’s East Side. Two 24-year-old men shot and killed on Johns Island the week before. A late May street party in North Charleston ending amid dozens of gunshots, striking 14 and claiming the life of an innocent young woman. Those are only a few of the disturbing recent headlines that make it quite clear that that we’re not immune to the epidemic of pointless gun violence that is raging across the nation.

As Charleston Police Chief Luther Reynolds put it: “Our system is failing us right now. All of us need to get together and do better. It’s a shared responsibility for everyone.”

It is indeed, and there’s no simple or obvious solution. Chief Reynolds has his own favorite fixes, but like everybody else’s, they just nip at the edges. Crime in general, and the disturbing rise in violent, often senseless crime in particular, is a complicated problem, one that won’t be solved simply by making more arrests or passing some new law or hiring a few more prosecutors.

What we need is for our local law enforcement leaders, prosecutors, judges, defense attorneys and court officials to come together — along with victims’ advocates, social service providers, civil justice advocates and leaders from the most severely impacted communities — to identify changes that can be made here in our community to get our most dangerous criminals off the street, tried and into prison, and to stop more people from becoming criminals and taking their place on the streets.

Fortunately, they don’t have to start from scratch. Charleston County’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council is a volunteer network that includes representatives from all of these groups. While the group has existed off and on for decades, it was reinvigorated in 2015 with an outside grant and has worked successfully to reduce the average length of stay in the county jail.

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But the coordinating council’s overarching charge is “to help protect public safety, minimize harms and cost-effectively focus limited system resources to promote an increasingly effective, efficient and equitable local criminal justice system” — which could easily incorporate the sort of brainstorming and collaboration that we need now to come up with workable solutions. For instance, to ensure that when suspects in violent crimes are identified, they’re arrested, tried quickly and sent to prison, before they have time to rot in jail awaiting trial or be released and commit more crimes. Or to better identify potential criminal hot spots and increase the police presence to prevent crime. Or to come up with even better ideas that we haven’t thought of and that the individuals around the table haven’t thought of — and probably wouldn’t if not for the open exchange of ideas.

The coordinating council has talked about the increase in violent crime and realizes part of the problem has been the suspension of jury trials and other court disruptions during the pandemic, says the council’s chairman, Jason Bruder, who also is a Charleston police captain. Nationally and locally, crime statistics show a spike last year and a rise this year, too. “Criminals are saying, ‘I may not go to court for three or four years,’ which for some of these criminals is a lifetime,” Mr. Bruder said. “When the system is shut down, it’s not holding people accountable. It’s kind of like wondering why your car is running in circles when only the right-side wheels are turning.”

The council is in a position not only to work on reducing that backlog but also to take other steps, perhaps including research that could help persuade state lawmakers to increase the penalties for second, third and fourth offenses of certain gun-related crimes, much like penalties increase for the second, third and fourth offenses for marijuana possession or minor theft.

The Charleston region has an advantage because the “defund the police” movement hasn’t caught on here. While it’s absolutely true that our efforts to combat crime shouldn’t focus solely on making arrests, the notion that we should increase funding for education, substance abuse treatment and other efforts at the expense of our police departments is counterproductive. We can police our streets while also tackling the root causes of crime. And we should.

And we must keep a sense of urgency about it, if only to reduce the number of people who say things like East Side resident Pierre King said last week. After he heard sirens responding to Wednesday’s multiple shootings, he told a newspaper reporter: “Nobody deserves to live in an environment like this.”

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