In almost every county in every state in America, jails and prisons are filled to overflowing, often with people who neither belong behind bars nor are best-served there.
Many in jail are awaiting trial, a process that can take months, even years. Many struggle with drug addiction and mental illness and are low-level offenders who pose little risk to anyone but themselves.
Many are simply cogs in the great supply chain of illicit drugs in communities where demand makes the industry possible.
The cost of arresting and incarcerating thousands of people like this is staggering, not just to the public purse but to the wheels of justice and the conduct of law enforcement. The process envelopes numerous public agencies and chews up the time, money and energy of hundreds of valuable professional public servants.
That doesn’t even count the immense disruption in the lives of families whose breadwinner is incarcerated, even for a short time. Research shows that even 24 hours spent behind bars destabilizes families and increases the risk or re-arrest.
Layered on top of that is the knowledge that certain groups – most notably African American men – suffer disproportionately in this system, likely well beyond their rate of offense.
No one is satisfied with the way the criminal justice system operates, here or anywhere else in the country. Law enforcement are frustrated by it. The legal profession is frustrated by it. Social service agencies and non-profits are frustrated by it. There is broad agreement that criminal justice is necessary to protect the public, but that this system is sub-optimal.
Criminal Justice Coordinating Council
In Charleston County, 24 groups – law enforcement, the county solicitor’s office, mental health, probation and parole, county council, community representatives and the ACLU – have begun to think outside the cell. They have formed a collaborative called the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (CJCC), “to assist in making sustainable, data-driven improvements to the local criminal justice system and thereby improve public safety and community well-being.”
Their work over the last several years has attracted a $2.25 million John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Safety and Justice Challenge Grant supporting six strategies for making the system more equitable, efficient and effective, including the launch of tools that will aid law enforcement officers in making arrest decisions for low-level offenses, and guide judges in pre-trial risk assessment for bond-setting.
Impressive Early Results
The results of this collaboration are trending in the right direction. From 2014-2016, arrests among the area’s four largest police agencies dipped 28%. Bookings into the county lockup dropped 30%.
At the same time, the discrepancy in the rate of booking African Americans versus Caucasians fell by about a third, from 3.4 times as many African Americans arrested to 2.3 times as many.
“What’s driving that qualitatively is that awareness in general about how we use jails is starting to get on people’s radar,” said Kristy Danford, project director of CJCC. “You don’t have to bring someone to jail for simple possession of marijuana; you can issue them a ticket. We’re making more deliberate decisions about when to use jail and when not to.”
An Innovation: Homeless Court
Out of discussions like this in the City of Charleston has emerged “homeless court.” Anyone charged with a quality-of-life offense – trespassing, urinating in public, shoplifting for food – that wouldn’t generally be committed by someone who is not homeless, is eligible to enroll in homeless court, rather than clog up municipal court and the normal wheels of justice.
Once in homeless court, offenders are allowed to create a plan to exit homelessness, with the help of One80 Place or some other provider, in lieu of serving time. If successful, the charges are dismissed.
“Thus far, since March, there has been zero recidivism or return to homelessness,” said Jeff Yungman, director of legal services at One80 Place. “The charge gets them into homeless court but it’s more about getting them off the street and into stable housing.”
The program is incredibly cost-effective, says Yungman. “There’s no endgame in jailing a homeless person for 20 days. When they get out they’re still homeless.”
The CJCC is closer to the beginning of its work than the end. Criminal justice is a big, complicated issue, but with many actors collaborating there is great hope for future improvements in the system.