Public defenders are stepping in sooner to help keep people out of jail in Charleston 

Time is Justice

David McCarty sat in jail for four months before a judge eventually sentenced him to probation.

click to enlarge David McCarty - PROVIDED
  • Provided
  • David McCarty

In October 2017, the 29-year-old Floridian was driving on the Sullivan's Island beach when police said he ran over a couple lounging under the night sky and drove away. The case, the details of which appeared in local news outlets, had a profound effect on McCarty and the victims, one of whom was in a medically-induced coma for a month, according to McCarty's recollection of a court hearing.

His bond, initially set at $200,000, was almost impossible for him to post.

"I had to have several family members sign for my bond," he said in an interview with the City Paper. "No one wanted to, they disagreed with what I had done and they wouldn't sign."

He had been in jail for a month by the time he was assigned a public defender. He got out in February 2018, after his bond was reduced to a more manageable $100,000, and hired a private attorney, Mark Peper. In February of this year, he pleaded guilty to one count of hit-and-run resulting in great bodily injury and will spend four years on probation. (A 10-year prison sentence was suspended upon $1,000 payment.)

While in jail, he lost his job, his relationship with his family deteriorated, and his girlfriend was forced to move out of the home she shared with McCarty and his father, who disapproved of the whole ordeal. Money ran low, and his girlfriend was using rewards points to stay in local hotels while she did the legwork necessary to get him out.

"It just became extremely difficult — mentally, emotionally — toward the end," McCarty said. "The more time that had passed, the more difficult it was."

Due Process

click to enlarge Mark Peper - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Mark Peper

That desperation is common. Detainees have a constitutional right to legal counsel and a speedy trial, but real-life variables often stretch the time their freedom is constrained without an official sentence.

"If they're not getting out in the first couple days, they're gonna stay longer," says Kristy Danford, the project director for the Charleston County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (CJCC), a consortium of local police departments, county agencies, and advocacy groups. "If they had a job, within the first couple days, they could lose their job. If they were taking care of loved ones, they're not taking care of loved ones."

Starting in January 2018, the CJCC officially introduced a pretrial assessment in an effort to reduce high bonds and lower the amount of time people spend behind bars before their cases are resolved.

Before a defendant goes to a bond hearing, scheduled within 24 hours of arrest based on South Carolina law, CJCC staff may conduct an interview to determine the likelihood that he or she will miss a court appearance or commit a new crime. Those answers are combined with the defendant's criminal history and demographic information, all of which is compiled into a two-page report for the judge to read.

Staff will also check if the defendant qualifies for a public defender for same-day representation.

Charleston is one of just two counties in South Carolina that now allow for public defender representation at bond court. Richland County is the other.

With the right attorney, someone could score a lower bond, or better yet, get released on their own recognizance, which requires no immediate payment.

"In South Carolina's history, there's never been any representation at bond court," says Ninth Circuit Public Defender Ashley Pennington. "One of our biggest pushes is to have the risk assessment tool done for 100 percent of people."

Early representation is standard in many parts of the country, says Chris Adams, a Charleston-based attorney and vice president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

"This was a big step forward in South Carolina," he says. "If you have a lawyer, you're more likely to get out of jail."

click to enlarge Cameron Blazer - RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith
  • Cameron Blazer

Cameron Blazer, a local criminal defense attorney, says it wasn't until she was a federal public defender that she first handled a bond hearing.

"It quickly became apparent to me how much different the power differential is when you can get them out on bond at the beginning," she says. "If you can get your client out of jail early, the government has less leverage. You also — there's a social benefit to your client. Your client can not lose a job, or can not lose their children, or not lose their housing because they're detained."

Interestingly, county jail sentences cap out at 90 days, but defendants can easily spend more than a year at the Sheriff Al Cannon Detention Center — the main jail used by the "big four" local law enforcement agencies — awaiting trial.

Blazer welcomes the CJCC's push for risk assessors and public defenders at bond court.

"To me, that's probably the single most important thing that's happened in the last five years," she says.

McCarty says he could have used that help. Public defenders were on hand at bond court starting in March 2017, but he says he wasn't screened or offered representation before he first saw a judge in October, though he later qualified for a public defender.

"I didn't know what to say, when to say, or how to say anything," he said of his bond hearing. "I'd never been in any trouble like this in my life."

Less people, longer stays

Charleston County's criminal justice system, like most, needs improvement.

The local jail population has gone down by 16 percent since 2014, but the average length of stay for pre-trial detainees (those who haven't been sentenced) has gone up by 90 percent in the same time, going from an average of 10 days in 2014 to 19 days in 2018, according to data published in the CJCC's 2018 report.

That's time that defendants could spend talking to their lawyers and planning their arguments.

However, experts warn that length-of-stay figures may be misleading.

Jail activity from cases in Summary Court, which handles lower-level crimes, has gone down by 58 percent since 2014.

That number coincides with recent micro-reforms in the local criminal justice system. The biggest such change has been an effort led by the CJCC to encourage officers to ticket people for five single-charge offenses (including simple possession of marijuana, shoplifting, and trespassing) instead of booking them into jail.

That means that offenders with more serious charges are accounting for longer stays in jail. Indeed, most people at the county jail are awaiting trial in General Sessions court.

"The time to disposition, how long it takes to bring cases to justice whether they'll be guilty or innocent, is a factor of are they getting attorneys, is the evidence moving quickly, is the investigation yielding new evidence," Danford says.

Also, public defenders handle more than 100 cases at a time, Pennington says.

"I would tell you that the progress we've made up to this point has been breathtaking," says Pennington, whose office works closely with the CJCC. "The idea that it takes years to get a trial isn't desirable in any system of justice. We have to work highly collaboratively to find ways to resolve it."


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