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Charleston County aims to decrease jail population by 25 percent in 3 years

Charleston County gets MacArthur grant to reduce jail population.jpg

Charleston County officials working in administration, law enforcement, the court system and the mental health system came together Wednesday to announce the receipt of a prestigious grant.

The jurisdiction beat out around 200 others to take the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Safety and Justice Challenge. The foundation valued the grant at $2.25 million, with a goal of reducing the county's jail population by 25 percent in three years. The Charleston County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (CJCC) will administer the efforts.

The plan involved six steps: implementing a risk assessment instrument for law enforcement officers so they can have a uniform approach to arrests, using real-time alternatives to jail for people with mental health issues, launching a text-alert system for court dates, enhancing bond court with statistics to make it more efficient and uniform, reducing time for cases to be resolved, and creating a central database for all county agencies.

"This is an effort that went across all areas of the criminal justice system," Assistant Sheriff Mitch Lucas said.

Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said she had seen the text alert system be successful in other areas.

"It's been tried in other places and it's reduced the number of bench warrants. Why does that help me? Because I represent victims whose cases are delayed by people getting bench warrants," she said.

"The first year is going to be spent on a lot of infrastructure development," CJCC project director Kristy Danford said. "There's a lot of technology work and staffing to come on board. The court reminder system would probably be the first one to come online and we'll gradually grow that as well as having a database administrator."

Chief Magistrate Ellen Steinberg said the changes to the bond court system would force judges to treat suspects more fairly.

"It's going to increase the accuracy of equitable treatment of defendants through the use of objective criteria at that initial bond hearing rather than often relying on gut instincts," Steinberg said.

Mental health care providers also said they were working with jail officials to implement a triage room where officers can hold suspects with mental illness or drug and alcohol issues, rather than send them straight to jail.

"The triage center is going to be a clearing house of info to tell them where they can take somebody to get their needs met. We don't expect officers on the street to know all the available resources," said Debbie Blalock with the Charleston Dorchester Mental Health Center.

County officials say they also planned to hire nine new positions to help facilitate the changes.

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