It’s hard to justify throwing someone in jail for standing around.
Even if they have an open beer in their hand.
But statistics released last week show that 3,809 people were booked at the Cannon Detention Center in 2014 for loitering — or for having a joint, or getting caught with an open container, public intoxication or misdemeanor shoplifting.
Those are the sorts of petty crimes where most times a person should be given a ticket and a court date and sent on their way. Or they need some other sort of help or intervention.
And that’s just what Charleston County is trying to do.
On Thursday, county officials announced a three-year plan to streamline the court system and cut down on over-incarceration. The goal is to reduce the average daily jail population by 25 percent.
Big goal, but then, they have big ideas.
The county’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council hopes to get some help in the form of a $3.4 million grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which has challenged law enforcement agencies around the nation to change the way we use jails.
Anybody in law enforcement will tell you this is long overdue. The current system is simply not sustainable, and creates a revolving door and a crowded jail. That is not only expensive, it does nothing to address the real problems.
A good hint that this is much more important than many people realize: not only are Sheriff Al Cannon, Solicitor Scarlett Wilson and local police chiefs on board, but some state Supreme Court justices have asked for a seat at the table.
Years ago, the state passed an omnibus crime reduction and sentencing reform act.
It was meant to cut down on prison overcrowding by making some common sense changes, and gave prosecutors more leeway in things like habitual offender charges, and changing the disparity in laws against crack and powder cocaine.
But a lot of these minor offenders fell through the cracks because, as usual, the politicians did not put the savings from jail overcrowding into programs that help people or get them on the right track. For instance, a high percentage of the trespassing/loitering crowd has mental health issues. More than a third of those people were assessed by mental health professionals and about three out of four needed treatment of some sort.
But these people repeatedly get taken to jail because, frankly, police officers have nowhere else to put them.
The county has decided to not wait on the state to fix this, which shows a great deal of common sense. Charleston was one of 20 communities nationwide to win a $150,000 MacArthur Foundation grant last year to come up with solutions.
Their plan is to reduce bookings on those minor non-violent offenses by 30 percent, reduce the number of days it takes a case to go through the system by 37 percent, reduce bookings for bench warrants by 30 percent and increase the number of defendants who get non-financial bonds in General Sessions Court.
They would also like to cut down on the racial disparities in the system. Black residents are jailed at a much higher rate than whites here, even higher than the national average.
These proposed changes would keep hundreds, maybe thousands, out of jail, which does little but cost taxpayers money.
In 2014, Charleston County booked 631 people on low-level offenses five or more times. At the jail, they call those folks “frequent fliers.” They spent an average of 62 days in the jail for petty crimes.
We don’t need to be running a Marriott for loiterers or some guy smoking a joint.
In this political climate it’s popular to say “lock ’em up.” Of course, those same people then complain about the money we spend jailing people.
Politicians have much to do with setting such unreasonable expectations, both with refusing to fund needed programs and proclaiming anything short of locking someone up and throwing away the key is “soft on crime.”
But we are not talking about violent thugs here. This is not about letting accused assailants, armed robbers and murderers loose.
This is about treating people with mental health issues, medical or substance abuse problems.
“We are talking about reducing the jail population for non-violent offenders,” Wilson said Thursday.
So what do we need to do? Well, the county wants more programs like Turning Leaf, a private facility that rehabilitates and reintroduces convicted criminals into society. It is the brainchild of Amy Barch, and has the potential to be a national model for reducing recidivism.
Barch’s program is already showing positive signs, and she has prosecutors and federal judges singing her praises daily.
This isn’t “hug a thug,” it’s a way to get people out of the system.
The Criminal Justice Coordinating Council is not just another feel-good blue-ribbon panel; this is a group of experts trying to solve a very complicated problem. If we can keep the politicians from stealing their thunder, and funding, they could very well make a huge difference.
Their work could not only save millions in criminal justice system costs, it could save a lot of lives — and the community.
Reach Brian Hicks at firstname.lastname@example.org.