Violent crime suspects released: Coronavirus changed the justice system in Greenville SC
The population of the Greenville County Detention Center was cut by a quarter over the course of a month, and the number of people charged with crimes typically tried in general sessions court — misdemeanors or felonies that carry a penalty of more than 30 days in jail — dropped by nearly half compared to previous months.
Inside courtrooms, more suspects accused of violent crimes were being let out of jail without having to pay bond, the money set by a judge to secure the temporary release of a person pending trial.
It's a side effect of the deadly novel coronavirus that had killed more than 15,000 Americans by Thursday afternoon.
Timeline of offenders being released
According to data collected by The Greenville News, the jail's population declined to 963 on April 1 from 1,265 on March 1. Additionally, the number of people charged with a crime and released on personal recognizance bonds increased dramatically, with 85% of cases March 23-29 resulting in an individual being released without having to pay any bond. The same week last year saw only 15% of cases handled that way.
The recent week's arrests that led to release without bond included:
- 4 assault and battery suspects
- 7 domestic violence suspects
- 4 child neglect suspects
- 4 grand larceny suspects
- 1 armed robbery suspect
Those were among 97 cases sent to Greenville County's general sessions court from March 23 through March 29.
A year earlier, from March 23 through March 29 of 2019, there were 157 arrests filed in general sessions court. From Feb. 3, 2020, through Feb. 9, 2020 — also before COVID-19 began changing policy for courts, citizens and businesses across South Carolina — there were 175 arrests filed in general sessions court.
On March 16, South Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald Beatty issued an order directing judicial circuits to take measures to limit inmates in jails to thwart the spread of coronavirus.
"Any person charged with a non-capital crime shall be ordered released pending trial on his own recognizance without surety, unless an unreasonable danger to the community will result or the accused is an extreme flight risk," part of the order reads.
As a result, some judges and magistrates are being more lenient with charges and bonds, a review of court records by The Greenville News has revealed.
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The first week of the state Supreme Court's order, judicial leaders had targeted specific defendants to let out of jail either on personal recognizance bonds, which are written promises to appear in court, or home monitoring programs, according to John Vandermosten, assistant county administrator who oversees the county's Department of Public Safety. Those defendants were primarily accused of nonviolent offenses and could have been sentenced to just a few days in jail, anyway, he said.
There was also a concern that if courts were to shut down with offenders in jail awaiting hearings, offenders would be stuck in jail longer than even what their criminal sentences would have been had they been tried and found guilty, Vandermosten said.
Who is let out early?
But analysis shows that it's not only those who face merely a few days in jail who've been let out sooner.
The Greenville News reviewed arrest and bond records in Greenville County's general sessions court a full week after Beatty's administrative order and compared that with the same time frame in 2019 as well as a week in February. Analysis showed contrast in how judges locked up accused offenders before the pandemic significantly spread in the Palmetto State.
Records show the accused, particularly those charged with violent crimes, are being released from jail at a higher rate.
Greenville County Sheriff Hobart Lewis said he was not aware of violent offenders being let out of jail more frequently in light of COVID-19.
"At the end of the day, we certainly can't control the judges. We do our part, and we certainly expect them to do theirs," Lewis said Thursday. "Our obligation is to deter and detect violators and keep the community safe."
More personal recognizance bonds during pandemic
During Feb. 3-9, magistrates gave out 32 personal recognizance bonds, making up about 18% of the cases. During March 23-29 2019, magistrates gave out 24 personal recognizance bonds, or 15% of the cases. During March 23-29, 2020, personal recognizance bonds spiked to 83, or 85% of cases.
Just 7% of a week's worth of cases in March had bonds denied, meaning judges opted to keep defendants in jail while their cases were pending. The reviewed week in February had bonds denied in 22% of cases, and the reviewed week in March 2019 had 16% denied.
Weeks later, once special hearings to immediately respond to Beatty's order were finished, criminal justice leaders switched back to regularly scheduled bond hearings to determine who should be let out or remain behind bars.
But judges are operating differently now, records show. And accusations of some violent offenses that traditionally would call for a judge to deny bond or set a high bond are now bringing personal recognizance bonds.
County leaders are not keeping records of which inmates are being let out specifically with coronavirus as the driving factor, Vandermosten said.
"Since that time there have been regular video General Sessions Bond hearings, Probation hearings, Plea Court, and Home Incarceration Program violation hearings. We also have inmates that are being released due to their bond being paid," Vandermosten wrote in an email to The Greenville News. "These were not special hearings and the Detention Center has no way of knowing if the COVID-19 pandemic had a factor in any release decision. I hope this makes sense as to why there is no accurate number."
Domestic violence and assault suspects pay lower if any bonds
For domestic violence and assault cases, there was only one personal recognizance bond out of 22 cases in the reviewed week in February. The time frame in March 2019 also had 22 domestic violence and assault cases, and two of those led to personal recognizance bonds. In contrast, the recent week in March saw 11 of 18 domestic violence and assault cases result in personal recognizance bonds. Six of the 18 were given low cash or surety bonds, meaning the defendant had to pay 10% of the bond amount, and one was denied bond.
That has contributed to a reduced jail population, something that's become a national effort amid the deadly pandemic.
U.S. Attorney General William Barr released a memo on Monday to the federal criminal justice system spurring efforts toward population reductions in jails, which are seen as breeding grounds for transmittable diseases. He urged the criminal justice system to consider the risks of the coronavirus and what adding more people to jails might do when deciding on bail.
Sheriff Lewis, who does not oversee his county's detention center unlike other South Carolina sheriffs, said his deputies are upholding goals of public safety and making arrests now just as they were before the pandemic reshaped life in South Carolina.
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He said it was his understanding that candidates for release were nonviolent, and he said he did not think there potentially violent suspects being released earlier or more frequently.
"It would be (frustrating) if that was happening, but that's not the case that we know of," Lewis said. "There's a big difference between somebody who has a simple possession of marijuana charge, gets in and gets released and gets a court date and they're able to sign their own bond versus somebody that's got manufacturing meth or fentanyl or whatever who is going to have to make bond. They're going to have to get a bondsmen; they're going to have to have a bond set on them."
The reviewed week in late March had 25 drug possession, manufacturing or distribution cases, and all of them led to personal recognizance bonds. The week of Feb. 3-9 had 54 drug cases, and 24% received personal recognizance bonds. The reviewed week of March 2019 had 45 drug cases, and just 5% got personal recognizance bonds.
Daniel J. Gross is an investigative watchdog reporter focusing on public safety and law enforcement for The Greenville News. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @danieljgross.