As campaigns for racial equity in criminal justice continue nationwide, one of South Carolina’s sheriffs spoke out earlier this week about the importance for law enforcement agencies to develop alternatives to detention for minor offenses.
At a press conference Monday where U.S. Sen. Tim Scott and Gov. Henry McMaster spoke about Scott’s JUSTICE Act, which if passed would provide for more accountability and transparency in law enforcement. The news conference was hosted in North Charleston, and Sheriff Al Cannon Jr. shared some insight into what he sees as major hurdles to reform and the steps being taken to better the criminal justice system.
Cannon shared that his office had a $2.5 million grant to develop a mechanism to gather data on the demographics of people incarcerated at the county jail. His staff found many people were behind bars simply because they couldn’t afford the cost of their bond.
“Number one, we found that the single largest charge that resulted in somebody being placed in the Charleston County detention center was simple possession of marijuana,” Cannon said.
The solution, he said, was to move toward cite-and-release. Instead of jailing people for this nonviolent drug possession offense, officers could issue a citation and avoid booking them.
“Give those police officers an option out there of charging somebody, but writing it on a ticket and letting them go on their way,” he said.
While cite and release had a significant impact on North Charleston’s jail population, Greenwood County’s own sheriff said he isn’t sure there’s as large an issue here with people being detained on a simple possession charge.
“I am not familiar with anyone in detention just on SPOM (simple possession of marijuana),” he said. “Maybe if they failed to appear in court and a bench warrant was issued for SPOM.”
He said when it comes to deciding whether to arrest someone for an offense, it’s up to an officer’s discretion. A ticket can be issued in some cases, but if a ticket doesn’t serve to correct the illegal activity, he said detention or issuing community service may be warranted.
A look at the Greenwood County Detention Center’s daily booking reports since the start of May showed about 45 people who had been booked at the jail with a charge of simple possession of marijuana. Three of those people were facing no additional charges, while the remainder were charged with other offenses alongside the drug possession. Most commonly, these people were also facing driving-related charges.
Of the about 45 charged with simple possession, about 25 of them had their race listed as “black” on the booking reports. All but one of the 25 were facing additional charges when they were booked.
“Cite and release is a practice as old as law enforcement itself,” Greenwood Police Department Public Information Officer Jonathan Link said. “Contrary to what most people believe, police officers don’t want to have to put people in jail if they really don’t deserve it, and not only because it overcrowds the facility.”
He said officers often issue courtesy summons to someone found with marijuana if that’s the only charge they’re facing. Officers also take into account a person’s demeanor and their past record when deciding how to proceed.
“For example, if a cooperative suspect admits to having some marijuana on their person or in their car, and they’ve not been charged multiple times before with possession, the officer may very well decide to take the marijuana for evidence and issue a citation,” he said. “This might be done if the person has a job that they need to report to and have never been in trouble before.”
On the other hand, if officers encounter someone with marijuana on them who is belligerent, they might end up having to arrest them because they end up facing additional charges, such as resisting arrest, driving under suspension or assault.
Link said officers work with families to avoid detaining children whenever possible, and when they’re able they want to ensure a minor charge doesn’t result in anyone losing their jobs or being separated from their families.
“The important thing for people to remember is that when we arrest someone, we become partially responsible for their safety and well-being,” he said. “That means that we sometimes need to detain people for their own safety, such as intoxicated persons.”