Al Cannon Detention Center – Charleston County Jail Overcrowding

Charleston County, like most locations in the United States, has been dealing with overcrowding at the Charleston County Detention Center (Al Cannon Detention Center) for years…


Because we keep putting more and more people in jail. If the number of people we arrest and incarcerate continues to rise, jails and prisons will continue to get more and more overcrowded.

Charleston, SC has struggled to find an answer to Charleston County Jail overcrowding, spending millions of dollars and implementing reforms that have made a difference. What kind of reforms have been implemented, what has Charleston County been doing to address the Charleston County Jail overcrowding problem, and what still needs to be done?

What is Being Done to Address Charleston County Jail Overcrowding?

What problems has Charleston County’s Jail faced?

  • Overpopulation – too many inmates and not enough space to house them;
  • Systemic racism – a disproportionate percentage of inmates are minorities; and
  • Discrimination against poor citizens – if you have money, you can go home. If you are poor, you can stay in jail.

Charleston County has been trying to solve these problems for years – what have they been doing?

We Made the Jail Bigger

Although the obvious solution to compassionate, thinking citizens might be to arrest fewer people, the first solution for Charleston County was to make the jail bigger.

In 2010, the Charleston County Jail opened a brand new, $100 million addition to the jail that expanded its capacity from 661 to 2112 inmates and included room for future expansions if needed.

Nationwide, this has been the first solution of most governments – keep expanding our jails and prisons as we continue to arrest more and people…

What is the Charleston County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council?

In 2015, Charleston County created the Charleston County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (CJCC), which found that some of the problems that cause Charleston County Jail overcrowding include:

  • High recidivism rates (people getting rearrested);
  • Unreasonable bonds due to lack of information available to judges at bond hearings;
  • High caseloads; and
  • A lack of options other than jail.

CJCC has implemented reforms in the past few years that have “led to an 18 percent drop in the locally arrested inmates booked into the Cannon Detention Center, according to the latest available statistics.”

Those reforms included not arresting every person for every minor offense, creating alternatives to jail, and working to improve the information available to judges at bond hearings.

Officer Discretion – Does Everyone Need to Go to Jail?

If someone is charged with simple possession of marijuana for a joint or a small bag of weed, do they really need to be taken to jail for that? Why? Are they a danger to the community? What benefit is there to locking that person up before they are convicted of the crime?

Most of the people booked into the Charleston County Jail (like most jails) were people charged with minor offenses:

Officials spent hundreds of hours going through data for 2014, the first year analyzed, and found that the majority of the jail’s bookings were for minor charges like simple possession of marijuana, violating open alcohol container laws, trespassing, misdemeanor shoplifting, and public intoxication.

Housing people accused of these crimes, even for a short period of time, was taking up valuable space and other resources that could instead be used to manage inmates facing more serious charges.

Officers and deputies were instructed to issue a citation but not arrest people when they are charged only with:

  • Simple possession of marijuana;
  • Open container;
  • Trespass;
  • Shoplifting; or
  • Public intoxication.

According to the data, officers decided to follow those instructions 46% of the time, resulting in a decrease by 51% in people booked solely for those charges.

What is the Tri-County Crisis Stabilization Center?

Another reform that makes sense was the reopening of the Tri-County Stabilization Center designed to divert people in a mental health crisis away from hospitals and jails. The Center only has ten available beds, however…

Bail-Bond Reform

The CJCC recommended additional reforms to the bond process in hopes of reducing Charleston County Jail overcrowding, including:

  • Providing a public defender to indigent defendants at their bond hearings;
  • Providing a “tool” to assist magistrates in determining whether a defendant is a flight risk or a danger to the community; and
  • Encouraging bond judges to issue personal recognizance bonds when appropriate.

The bail bond system, in Charleston County and nationwide, has resulted in poor people being punished because they are poor – if you have money, you go home. If you are poor, you wait in a cage until you break down and plead guilty (whether you are guilty or not).

Maybe, instead of “reforming” the bond system, we should just do away with it – there are alternatives, and no amount of reform can change the fact that the wealthy can afford bond while the poor cannot…

Here’s an Idea – Stop Arresting So Many People…

The CJCC may be on to something with the notion of issuing citations instead of arresting people for minor offenses.

Why do we want to put someone in a cage when they are not dangerous?

America locks up more of our citizens than any other country in the world – we are addicted to crime, punishment, and incarceration:

  • The U.S. has 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s prison population.
  • We have increased the number of people incarcerated in our country by 700% since 1970 – a growth rate that does not square with population growth or crime rates.
  • Around 2.3 million people are in jail or prison in America today.
  • One in three black children in America can expect to go to prison during their lifetime. Let that sink in.
  • One in six Latino children, and one in 17 white children in America can expect to go to prison during their lifetime.
  • The prison system cost US taxpayers around $80 billion a year. Read that again – $80 billion each year…

What’s the answer?

It’s a complex set of issues, I get that. But the starting point must be stop arresting people. There are so many criminal laws now – federal, state, and local – that each of us probably breaks the law every day. We are obsessed with control – do what we say, or you will be punished.

Two points:

First, in a secular society (and we are, whether you like it or not), criminal laws should exist to protect us from each other – they should not:

  • Protect us from ourselves;
  • Legislate morality; or
  • Legislate religious principles.

Drug use, prostitution, and gambling are the most common examples of victimless crimes that should not be crimes. Does it offend your sense of morality? Don’t do it. But don’t force your morals on someone else, either.

Second, not every alleged crime requires a person to be taken to jail. Accused of violently murdering someone or robbing a store at gunpoint? Yes, the suspect should probably be jailed pending a bond hearing.

Accused of smoking a joint or stealing a candy bar? What’s the point of jail? Remember, pre-trial incarceration is not punishment – it is a way to protect the community and ensure a defendant’s appearance at trial…

Charleston, SC Criminal Defense Lawyer

Grant B. Smaldone is a criminal defense lawyer based in Charleston, SC who defends state and federal criminal cases in the Eastern SC area.

If you have been charged with a crime in state or federal court in SC, call now at (843) 808-2100 or send an email to talk to a Charleston, SC criminal defense attorney today.