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Jail population falls, but release of violent re-offenders worries Charleston prosecutor

By Angie Jackson, The Post and Courier

A council tasked with local criminal justice reform on Wednesday touted collaborative efforts that officials say have contributed to a “tremendous” drop in the population at the Charleston County jail in recent years.

At the same time, Charleston’s top prosecutor expressed concern about repeat violent offenders being released back into the community on bail.

Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson applauded the Charleston County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council for seeking alternatives to jail for nonviolent suspects. The push is funded by a $2.25 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation.

Area law enforcement are being encouraged to issue citations for some low-level crimes. And the Trip-County Crisis Stabilization Center, which reopened last year, is aimed at diverting people with mental illness or substance abuse issues from jails and hospitals.

But Wilson, one of multiple officials who spoke Wednesday at a news conference, said the data collected by the council show that “too many people who are continuing to reoffend are getting out on bond.”

“(Bond) revocations need to be used, and that is a tool that doesn’t require money from MacArthur,” she said. “It doesn’t require positions. It requires judges following the law.”

The average daily population at the Al Cannon Detention Center fell 13 percent between 2014 and 2017 — from 1,111 inmates to 963 — according to the coordinating council, which intends to reduce the head count by 25 percent by April 2019.

The council formed in 2015 with the goal of making data-driven improvements to the local criminal justice system. It incorporates law enforcement authorities, judges, mental health professionals and other community leaders.

In January, Charleston County implemented a new bail-setting process to make sure defendants aren’t staying behind bars before trial solely because they cannot afford to pay. Bond judges now use a risk assessment that assigns points to defendants based on categories such as the type of charge they face, their criminal record, past failures to appear in court, family history and signs of drug use.

“Our goal is not to let people out of jail willy-nilly,” said Charleston County Assistant Sheriff Mitch Lucas, chairman of the council. “Our goal is to make the criminal justice system efficient, effective and equitable for everyone.”

The move came after the council found that people who paid money to get out of jail before trial were more likely to be rearrested than those who are released on personal recognizance.

“When someone is violent, we have to take steps to ensure that the community is safe,” Wilson said. “So do not be confused by the fact that we are trying to keep a portion of the population out of jail. Keeping someone in jail because they are violent, I’m for (that) all day long. But not because they’re poor.”