Jailhouses Experiment With Ways to Lock Less People Up

Among the places testing new ways to keep low-risk offenders out of jail, Charleston, S.C., stands out.
by | July 2017
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Lockup has gotten a lot less crowded in Charleston, S.C. Over the past two years, the number of admissions at the county jail has dropped 30 percent, in turn bringing the daily prison population down by 10 percent. It’s not that lots of criminals have gotten out of the game or moved elsewhere. It’s that law enforcement and the criminal justice system are handling offenders differently.

When an officer in Charleston picks up someone who is clearly inebriated or stoned, he has the option of calling treatment centers to see if there are any vacancies, rather than booking the offense. When charges do get filed, magistrates are provided with information about each individual, giving them a better sense of whether the alleged offender is a flight risk or poses a danger to the community, or whether he can simply be released on his own recognizance. When people are released, the county sends them every type of reminder imaginable -- email, phone call, text, letters -- to make sure they know their court dates, cutting down on the number of people in jail simply for failing to appear.

These changes seem to be responsible for the drop in bookings and jail days. “All of it has been ingenious,” says Dot Scott, president of the NAACP’s Charleston branch.

Law enforcement in Charleston has had issues with racial profiling in the past. But what really drove these changes was the prospect of grant money. The MacArthur Foundation offered localities the chance to compete for millions of dollars to pursue criminal justice reform. Nearly 200 applied, and Charleston was one of the winners. Merely coming together to apply for the grant created a collaborative culture across agencies, which was exactly what MacArthur was trying to promote. “Pragmatically, there’s nothing like money to get adversarial parties talking to each other about finding solutions,” says Vic Rawl, who chairs the Charleston County Council.

The Charleston effort has involved the sheriff, local police, social workers, probation officers, prosecutors and court officials. They’re all parts of an inherently antagonistic system, but they were able to sit down and find some areas where they could reach agreement about new approaches, without worrying too much about turf.

The effort in Charleston stands out, but lots of law enforcement systems are experimenting with new ways to keep low-risk offenders out of jail. Lucas County, Ohio, which includes Toledo, has pulled together teams of prosecutors and public defenders to weigh in on which offenders can be safely released. Harris County, Texas, Houston’s home county, is trying to speed up the amount of time it takes prosecutors to review charges, while also reducing court processing times.

Brian Mueller, the chief deputy sheriff in Pennington County, S.D., which includes Rapid City, cites a whole array of experiments, among them youth diversion and pre-trial electronic monitoring of offenders. As seems to be the case everywhere, the hope is to keep nonviolent offenders out of custody if they pose little danger to themselves or others. “Our jail [is] not overcrowded,” Mueller says, “but it’s nearing capacity and has been for the last couple of years.” He’s banking on the new ideas out of places like Charleston to help with that problem.