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A study of racial imbalance in the Charleston County justice system raises more questions than it answers

Hidden figures

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A consortium of local law enforcement agencies and nonprofits joined forces for a first-of-its-kind, data-driven look at racial disproportionality in Charleston's criminal justice system.

What they found, in a report published this month (see below), isn't exactly shocking to anyone familiar with institutional racism and its effects on African-American communities, but the numbers provide the clearest picture so far of the overrepresentation of blacks in the Sheriff Al Cannon Detention Center.

For every 1,000 black people in Charleston County, 10.19 were booked into county jail last year. When compared to just 1.33 of every 1,000 white people, that means that African Americans were jailed 7.65 times as often as white people in 2017. The most common charge? Simple possession of marijuana. (For whites, it's DUI.)

But none of the numbers tell a simple story.

Take the charge with the most racial disproportionality, for example. The county jail saw 121 single-charge bookings for unlawful carrying of a firearm last year. Slightly more than 13.5 black people were booked for every white person brought up on that same charge at the jail — which is used by the Charleston, North Charleston, and Mt. Pleasant police departments as well as the Charleston County Sheriff's Office. Black defendants were let out of jail on public recognizance bonds, which don't require immediate payment, less than white defendants. The average bond for black defendants was over $4,000 more than it was for white defendants, but if you follow the cases through the court system, you'll find that white defendants were convicted 40 percent of time, while black defendants were only found guilty in just 28 percent of cases.

That means different things depending on who you ask.

For Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, those numbers speak to differences in offender behavior. Maybe groups of young black men are charged with gun possession at officer discretion, she says, because it's not clear who the gun belongs to.

"That's one reason why our dismissal rate is so high," Wilson said in an interview with the City Paper. "No fingerprints, no DNA, whose is it?"

It could also be that black offenders are sometimes younger, and are thus cut more slack by the judges on the bench, Wilson posits.

For Charleston NAACP President Dot Scott, the numbers show an issue in policing.

"They couldn't see that weapon prior to the stop, so that means the stop was a pretext stop," Scott said. "The officers have the discretion to decide, 'What kind of stop are we going to make this?'"

The propensity for black defendants to be charged with simple possession of marijuana raises similar questions about cultural differences for Wilson, especially because use of marijuana among whites and blacks is about the same.

"Is it because of where these people are when they're smoking marijuana?" Wilson asked. "Are they in their grandmother's basement or are they walking on the sidewalk and in plain view of an officer?"

The study represents years of work by the Charleston County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, an ambitious and amiable effort between groups including local law enforcement agencies, the ACLU of South Carolina, the NAACP, the Solicitor's Office, Charleston County government, and others. The 2018 midyear report is the result of number crunching from various data banks across different departments.

Susan Dunn, legal director of the ACLU of South Carolina, is proud of the trust between the various participants, who represent entities that often butt heads outside of their meetings.

"It may not make it easier to [address racial disparity], but it might help us speak honestly with each other," she says.

The number of arrests for unlawful carrying of a firearm also raise flags for her.

"Why are we arresting people for charges that don't go forward with convictions? What's the story?" she asks. "It may be a step before that. A car full of white guys doesn't get searched, but a car full of black guys does."

These questions get at the heart of the Council's limited findings. The numbers are preliminary (the yearly report is due in March 2019) and they only measure "disproportionality," or the overrepresentation of one demographic group over the other, as opposed to "disparity," the unequal treatment resulting from discrimination or bias. A long section at the end of the report accounts for factors that could explain the "REDD," racial and ethnic disproportionality and disparity, in Charleston's criminal justice system. Everything from the educational attainment gap, to economic disadvantages, to a brief history of mass incarceration is touched on, but when questioned about the findings, law enforcement officials can't yet find room for improvement within their departments.

"A lot of those factors are out of law enforcement's control," said North Charleston Deputy Chief Scott Deckard. "I think the numbers are a result of law enforcement enforcing the laws and working to get crime under control."

"I've been a cop for 36 years, I don't remember a time when race or ethnicity played a role in any decisions," said Charleston County Assistant Sheriff Mitch Lucas, the chairman of the three-year-old group. "You gotta come into this with a 40,000-foot view and say, how does this happen, what is the reason for this?"

A glimmer of hope does exist in the system, which Lucas likens to the "eye of a hurricane" due to the way it can tear at those caught inside it. A new cite-and-release practice for five single-charge crimes, first employed by the cities of Charleston and North Charleston, dropped the booking rate by 61 percent for black defendants and 44 percent for white defendants between 2014 and 2017.

In North Charleston, those charged with either simple possession of marijuana, open container, trespassing, misdemeanor shoplifting, or public intoxication are usually cited and released. If an officer needs more guidance to make a decision, a simple proxy tool can be deployed on the street in the form of three questions: what is the offender's current age, the age of his or her first arrest, and how often has this person been arrested?

"I think there has been a significant movement to not jail people with low-level nonviolent crimes and this has been a reduction across the board," says Dunn of the ACLU. "Fewer people are being locked up for simple possession. That was a deliberate policy decision."

Solicitor Wilson says the findings have inspired her to further study the disproportionality in public recognizance bonds and bond amounts.

"There are plenty of nonviolent petty offenders being trapped under a $500 dollar bond," Wilson said. "A thousand dollars doesn't do anything except keep somebody who's poor in jail, so I've continued to be interested in bond revocations and ensuring we have the right people housed pre-trial."

Roundtables with community members are planned for the future, though no dates had been set as of Tues. Sept. 25.

"The question is if the powers that be use this informational data and move forward with it in a way that makes change," Scott said. "Now what are we gonna do about it?"

Charleston County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council Midyear Report Charleston County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council

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