SC Justice Academy funding in jeopardy

At a time when police training is increasingly under the microscope, South Carolina’s only police academy is in danger of losing one-third of its budget if lawmakers fail to act.

Every new member of law enforcement in South Carolina gets level one certification at the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy (SCCJA) in Columbia. The 12-week program provides the basic training required by state law to become a police officer. Most agencies then provide field training before hitting the streets, but that is not required by statute.

Despite the critical function the academy is responsible for providing, the SCCJA is not funded as part of the state’s budget.

“They’re not funded in a way that says this is important,” Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon told the News 2 I-Team. “Their [The State of SC] record is pitiful when it comes to providing the necessary funding for law enforcement.”

Cannon is among many high-ranking members of law enforcement who say the funding mechanism needs to change.

Right now, that money comes from a portion of the fines, fees attached to tickets and other offenses, along with a $5 surcharge attached to the court costs.

SCCJA Deputy Director Michael Lanier says, “we’re dependent on how much money comes in.”

What is coming in has plummeted 25% in the last few years. Much of the drop can be attributed to some municipalities not paying their portion of the fees. In 2009 the agency received nearly $4M, it collected just shy of $3M in the last fiscal year.

It is having a devastating impact on the academy.

“I’ve got five vacancies and I can’t fill them,” said Lanier.

The dip in collections from the fines and fees is compounded by the possibility of the $5 surcharge going away in June. There is a sunset clause, and unless lawmakers act to extend it one third of the SCCJA’s budget will disappear.

“That’s 17 positions and also a cut in training,” Lanier added. “You can’t do that without having an enormous impact on the agency, especially one as small as ours.”

Laying off 17 employees would mean cutting the 12-week basic training, down to nine. Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen says, 12 weeks is not enough, and nine weeks would be unacceptable.

“We went from nine weeks in our academy a few years ago, to 12, and that’s still not in my opinion…still not adequate to provide the necessary skills and education to a law enforcement officer in 2016,” said Mullen

The average length of basic training across the country is 18 weeks according to Mullen, and SC falls well short of that.

The only other state we could find that operates a central academy like South Carolina, is Kentucky. The budget comparison is not even close.

“The last time we checked, [Kentucky’s] budget was somewhere in the neighborhood of $45M, and our budget is somewhere in the neighborhood of $13M,” said Lanier.

In order to stretch every dollar the academy has, Lanier and the rest of the employees clip coupons from the Sunday paper to save money on food for the cafeteria.

“It’s unconscionable,” said Cannon. “The state is not fulfilling its responsibility to the citizens of the state, nor to the public safety community.

Lanier is hoping the $5 surcharge will be renewed, and allow the agency to keep a status-quo. Cannon, and Mullen are hoping that lawmakers understand the importance of making a line item in the state budget.

The I-Team asked several lawmakers about the SCCJA’s finacial struggles. Only Senator Larry Grooms could provide answers, and he says he is going to push for exactly what Cannon, and Mullen are calling for, but it won’t be a quick process.

Until then, there is a proposal to extend the $5 surcharge, but there is an objection, and it could be in for a fight.

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