Al Cannon Jr. is sheriff of Charleston County, S.C.
When a Charleston, S.C., patrol officer stopped a young mother outside Walmart after store officials reported that she was shoplifting groceries, her first thought was of her children. Who would watch them if she were arrested? She could not afford the food she had taken for her family — let alone a babysitter, an attorney or bail.
As the sheriff for Charleston County, I know that if the encounter had taken place a few years ago, she would likely have gone to jail, sending her and her children’s lives into an economic and emotional tailspin. In the past, law-enforcement officers had no alternatives to taking someone to jail for nonviolent offenses such as shoplifting. Fortunately, that was not true in her case.
Instead, the officer employed a new approach called “cite and release.” Rather than jailing the woman for a low-level, nonviolent offense, the officer gave her a citation for shoplifting, instructed her to appear in court at a later date and let her go. She returned home to her children that day instead of spending weeks in jail awaiting trial at no benefit to public safety and to the detriment of her family.
At a time of heartbreaking turmoil over police-community relations and rising incarceration, national attention has once again turned to Charleston with the start last week of the trial of a former police officer in the tragic shooting death of Walter Scott. Now more than ever is the time for law-enforcement leaders to acknowledge that serious problems exist in our criminal justice systems and that reform begins with us.
Law-enforcement leaders need to develop fair and effective approaches that reflect our commitment to public safety while giving people the best chance to succeed and lead productive lives. That young mother’s story is a prime example of the kind of gains we can make and lives we can save when we rethink how our justice systems should work.
How we use jails deserves a hard look. I have more than 30 years of experience in law enforcement, and I understand firsthand our obligation to protect public safety and the challenges my officers face every day as they work hard to protect us. I also know that the number of people in U.S. jails is high , and that even a brief stay in jail can upend lives and lead to deeper involvement in the criminal justice system. Some people never recover from a stay in jail. And the evidence shows that many of those people did not need to be there in the first place.
Local jails — intended to hold people who pose a flight risk or threat to public safety — are instead incarcerating many who commit nonviolent offenses or are unable to afford bail, negatively affecting the community and the judicial system.
In South Carolina, the average daily population in our jails has exceeded capacity since 1989. Most people are there for low-level offenses, not dangerous crimes. Many with mental illness and substance-abuse issues cycle in and out for minor violations. And amid rising homelessness in our community, people who have nowhere to sleep are often jailed for trespassing.
We must ask ourselves whether putting so many people in jail for offenses unrelated to public safety is the best use of our justice system and limited resources.
These challenges are not unique to Charleston. Across the country, there are nearly 12 million jail admissions each year, and many people remain behind bars and cut off from their families and jobs simply because they cannot afford bail. The problem is particularly acute for women: According to research from the Vera Institute of Justice and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, the number of women in jail is up 14-fold since 1970, and about 80 percent of them are mothers.
Recognizing these troubling trends, Charleston is implementing a number of reforms to transform how we use jails that others should consider. We are one of several jurisdictions across the country that sought and received support from the Safety and Justice Challenge to improve local justice systems and safely reduce jail populations.
As part of holistic reform efforts, a new legal-defense program for those who are unable to afford counsel will provide an attorney to low-income residents at their initial bond hearings, when judges determine if they can safely be released into the community while awaiting trial.
Our cite-and-release program gives my officers more discretion in how to handle low-level offenses in situations when jail is not the best outcome for anyone.
In addition, a triage center service launching next year will help officers steer people who are living with homelessness, mental illness or addiction into treatment and other services — and avoid incarceration.
We should not forget that many law-enforcement officers understand better than anyone where the problems lie in our justice systems. No one on my team wants to take someone to the county jail, away from family and livelihood, without any improvement to public safety.
Together, we must do everything we can to find fairer, more-effective approaches to justice. As a law-enforcement leader and a sheriff, I know that jail is not always the answer.