Charleston County, SC

Change in Jail Population 35%

Action Areas Community Engagement Courts Diversion Racial Disparities

Last Updated

Background

In 2014, there were nearly 25,000 local admissions to Charleston County’s jail. The most frequent charges resulting in jail use were municipal and magistrate charges (e.g., simple possession of marijuana) that also disproportionately impacted the county’s Black community. Individuals living with mental illness, substance use disorders, and/or homelessness were among the most frequent users of the jail, often cycling through repeatedly.

In the courtroom, defendants in bond court rarely had representation, and judges had minimal information when making decisions at initial appearance. Judges ordered financial bonds routinely. If they were not able to get released, people often remained in jail for long periods while waiting for their cases to resolve.

Delays in the earliest stages of a case (while evidence was transferred from law enforcement to prosecution, for example, or attorneys for defense or prosecution were assigned) added to the time it took to bring cases to justice.

Strategies

Since joining the Safety and Justice Challenge in 2015, Charleston County has advanced a number of strategies to rethink and redesign its criminal justice system so that it is more fair, just, and equitable for all.

01

INCREASED COLLABORATION

The county’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (CJCC) formed in 2015 to make sustainable, data-driven improvements to the local criminal justice system, as well as improve public safety and community well-being. The CJCC is a collaboration of elected and senior county officials, law enforcement leaders, judicial and court leadership, behavioral health professionals, victim and legal advocates, and community leaders.

02

COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT

The CJCC aimed to use data alongside expanded community engagement as it developed its strategic plan, using the idea of a “dialogue to change.” This included a particular focus on those most impacted. The CJCC engaged people through a series of events, roundtable dialogues, and surveys, which helped involve the community in setting the course for the next strategic plan.

03

ENHANCED DATA

Charleston County strengthened its commitment to transforming the local criminal justice system using a variety of data-based strategies. To make sure the county could track progress, a centralized database was developed to track progress across the criminal justice system and study trends.

04

DIVERSION TO SERVICES

Charleston County set out to divert people from jail on municipal and magistrate charges when appropriate. The program expanded the options that law enforcement could use beyond jail, offering alternatives that helped individuals get the help they need and reduce the number of people cycling repeatedly through the jail.

05

IMPROVED COURT RESOURCES

More resources were set up for individuals within the courts. For the first time, public defenders were available at Centralized Bond Court for defendants who qualified. Docket management was transferred from the Solicitor to the Court, and people were able to get through the early stages of case processing faster through new, more efficient processes (e.g., transferring evidence and assigning attorneys faster).

06

JAIL POPULATION REVIEW

Charleston County instituted regular reviews of the jail population to identify pretrial defendants that are not a threat to safety or flight risk and remain in jail on financial bonds in an effort to expedite case movement and reduce how long they stay in jail before the trial.

Results

As a result of the strategies above, Charleston County has made progress towards its goal of rethinking and redesigning its local criminal justice system.

Quartery ADP for Charleston County (2016-2021)

35% from baseline

More Results

By 2020, jail use in Charleston County was returning to its intended purpose, reducing the harms of unnecessary incarceration on people, families, and communities. This included a reduction in the jail population, local bookings, individuals booked, and charges.

The centralized database, launched in 2017, and now provides access from across the criminal justice system to see results, conduct analysis, and evaluate how the local criminal justice system is functioning and allows for identification of areas with the opportunity for improvement. This reporting shows that the municipal and magistrate charges brought to the jail declined by 78% from 2014 – 2020.

Five single-charge bookings, including simple possession of marijuana, open container, misdemeanor shoplifting, trespassing, and public intoxication, were specifically targeted as part of the county’s Safety and Justice Challenge efforts, and as a result, were reduced by 84% from 2014 – 2020. The number of people regularly cycling through the jail who were booked and released between 2014 – 2020 decreased by 63%.

The county made significant progress in diverting people from jail to alternatives to help get the help they need. In 2019, law enforcement referred 74 individuals to the Tri-County Crisis Stabilization Center, conducted 473 law enforcement consultations with embedded clinicians, and executed 152 law enforcement drop-offs to the Charleston Dorchester Mental Health Center.

Bond court representations by public defender attorneys started in 2016, gradually increasing from zero in 2015, to 2,128 in 2020. Bond court judges also became involved as partners, getting more information on setting bonds that are fair, just, and meaningful. As part of this, Pretrial Service Reports were set up in 2018 to better inform bond setting judges. These reports offered a consistent, objective, and reliable way to assess for risk of rearrests and/or missing court. By 2020, the reports became available to over 90% of bond hearings in the Centralized Bond Court.

The average number of days in the early stages of case processing improved from 2015 to 2020. This included improvements in the time it took to be assigned a public defender, assigned a solicitor, and how long it took for initial evidence from law enforcement to be provided to prosecutors.

While analyzing the relative rates of incarceration between racial and ethnic groups helped the county improve inequities in the criminal justice system, there is still more work to do. Disproportionately, Black people were booked into the local jail on low-level target charges as well as overall charges, although the gap had shrunk between 2014 and 2017.

The Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (CJCC) efforts to engage the community in the development of the strategic plan brought together over 1,200 community members, including many with direct experience of the justice system. Together, community members and system stakeholders (i.e., judges, public defenders, prosecutors, etc.) created the CJCC’s strategic plan in 2020, focusing on identifying data trends and community priorities to advance change for the next three years (FY2021 – FY2023).

Remaining Challenges

Charleston County is focused on addressing its remaining challenges in its local justice system.

The county’s current strategic plan aims to do more to help protect public safety, minimize harm, and more efficiently use limited system resources—all to create an effective, just, and equitable local criminal justice system.

The strategic plan includes a focus on community engagement, to keep people involved and provide more ways to engage in improving its criminal justice system. It also includes a planned update on the data around racial and ethnic disproportionality and disparities. Beyond data, a race equity fellowship proposal is in the works to create effective agents of change in building consciousness and reducing disparities among criminal justice system actors and people who are leading efforts to address racial and ethnic inequities throughout the community.

Regular reviews of the local jail population continue to be necessary, helping make sure that people who are not a threat to public safety or a flight risk are not detained pretrial unnecessarily. Continued General Sessions court reminders continue to remind defendants of their upcoming court events to increase court appearances and help make sure that the system doesn’t lose contact with people while their cases are pending.

The county must also continue to work on options for diverting and deflecting people from jail. This will include inter-agency case conferencing with service providers, law enforcement, and judicial stakeholders to improve outcomes for those who are most frequently booked into the local jail in an effort to break the cycle of repeated jail use; research on how diversion and deflection from the criminal justice system and into diversionary options impacts arrests, jail population, and behavioral health outcomes; and stronger county-wide tracking on crime and jail use.

The county will also continue to focus on bond hearings in Centralized Bond Court are fair, just, and meaningful. Regardless of the type of bond set, within the state there is currently minimal oversight of the conditions of the bond setting, let alone feedback about pretrial outcomes or a continuum of pretrial options available to help maximize safety and improve the rate of appearances. The strategic plan includes developing a proposal to help address these challenges.

The CJCC, in partnership with Trident United Way 211, is working to strengthen the directory of services for justice-involved people that will help ensure they know which services are available and who they can help.

Last, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on every aspect of the county’s local justice system and continues to uniquely affect those incarcerated in jail. More research is needed on the impacts of the pandemic on the justice system, and what lessons can be learned in the long-term.

Lead Agency

Criminal Justice Coordinating Council
3831 Leeds Avenue
North Charleston, SC 29405

Contact Information

Kristy Pierce Danford
Project Director
kdanford@charlestoncounty.org
843-529-7307

Partners

Charleston County Council, Charleston Sheriff's Office, Charleston Police Department, North Charleston Police Department, Mount Pleasant Police Department, Ninth Circuit Defender, Ninth Circuit Solicitor, Charleston County Clerk of Court, Judiciary, including Circuit, Probate, Magistrate and Municipal Court Leadership, Charleston Dorchester Mental Health Center, Charleston Center, Probation, Parole and Pardon Services, Victim Advocacy, Veteran Justice Outreach, American Civil Liberties Union, One80 Place, 12 diverse community representatives

Follow @ChsCJCC

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