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In hopes of getting career criminals off their streets, officials from Jasper County and its municipalities signed a two-year agreement Monday with the 14th Circuit Court Solicitor's Office to fast-track prosecution of repeat offenders.
Jasper County will contribute $35,000 per year, and the town of Ridgeland and city of Hardeeville will contribute $17,500 each to pay a full-time prosecutor to target the county's violent and repeat offenders, according to Solicitor Duffie Stone.
A similar program is up and running in Beaufort County.
"The team focuses on public safety and the people who commit the crime, rather than the crime itself," Stone said. "The focus is on a small group of individuals who commit the majority of the crimes."
Beaufort County officials have said the solicitor's Career Criminal Prosecution team, launched in late 2008, helped end over-crowding in its jail by bringing repeat offenders to trial faster. Stone says the team has a 90 percent conviction rate.
Plans for a Jasper County version of the team were unveiled Monday at the county's government building, where officials from Jasper County, Hardeeville and Ridgeland met to sign the agreement.
The new prosecutor, Robbie Ferguson, will join Jasper County's two prosecutors, one who works full-time and the other part-time, Stone said. Ferguson, who was a member of Beaufort County's Career Criminal Prosecution team, will prosecute repeat offenders and those accused of public corruption and violent crimes, Stone said.
Suspects with long arrest records and those charged with violent crimes such as murder, rape or armed robbery often get large bonds that they can't afford or no bond at all and must await a trial date that can be months away, Stone said. To speed up prosecution, the team, which consists of four veteran prosecutors, brings major cases to trial every month.
Most jail inmates are awaiting trial, and if convicted, will be moved to state prison in most instances. Faster prosecution reduces the overall population, Stone said.
Two federal grants in July 2009 paid for two more prosecutors for a Western Career Criminal Prosecution team that covers Colleton, Hampton, Allendale and Jasper counties, Stone said. The grant, which was matched each year with funds from the Solicitor's Office operating fund, expires July 1, 2011, said Daniel Brownstein, an office spokesman. The office will reapply for the grant, he said.
Stone said the two lawyers on the Western team will join Ferguson during the county's general session court weeks to help prosecute cases.
The Western team also has a 90 percent conviction and expects to prosecute at least 50 cases this year, Stone said. The Jasper County team is expected to prosecute nearly 30 cases, he said.
"We need to make sure they have enough time to prepare each case, or it's not effective," Stone said.
Jasper County Administrator Andrew P. Fulghum approached Stone about improving Jasper County's system early this year, Stone said. Attempts Monday to reach Fulghum and Jasper County Council Chairman George Hood were unsuccessful.
"In the long run, it will save the county money because it will move the repeat offenders out of the county jail and on to prison -- which the state pays for -- more quickly," he said.