Christina Parnall (‘09) pursued a degree in law because she wanted to make a difference.
“A long held goal of mine was to be present at the intersection of criminal justice issues where there is a lot of trauma,
grief, and anxiety and to be that voice to help guide people as they navigate the system,” she says. “To help orient them and show them how they get out of it.”
After graduating from Charleston School of Law, Parnall worked many years as a Spanish-speaking criminal defense attorney and a Charleston County public defender, putting her on the front lines of the criminal justice system where she experienced firsthand the challenges faced by her clients.
“Over time my desire changed not just to be able to guide a client or family member through the system, but to be able to contribute to the efforts in changing the system,” she says.
In 2016, she was invited to be a part of Charleston County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (CJCC), which was established to improve public safety and community well-being. The CJCC brings together 16 organizations, including local police departments, the ACLU, and the homeless shelter, to identify the issues and collaborate on solutions using data to guide their decisions.
In 2015 and again in 2018, the CJCC received grants totaling $4.95 million from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to expand its efforts and focus on reducing the Charleston County jail population.
Parnall’s role as CJCC’s database administrator is to provide meaningful analysis of the data compiled from participating organizations, which Parnall says, makes the biggest difference when tackling racial disproportionality in the criminal justice system, where a greater proportion of minorities are affected.
“When you’re bringing meaning out of data, so much depends upon not just technical expertise and being careful in efforts you make to interpret, but it also requires background subject matter expertise,” says Parnall. “I also have a relationship with the people I communicate with so I can provide appropriate data.”
Racial and ethnic disproportionality is an important data point that Parnall says is instrumental in uncovering issues. “We analyze the disproportionality within the system to inform specific objectives,” says Parnall, who notes that racial disproportionality numbers at many points have decreased since CJCC began addressing these issues in 2015. “It’s conservative progress, but we’ve had some achievements. There’s a lot more work to do.”
Last year, the CJCC made a strong push to embed itself further into the community, says Parnall. They held forums, roundtable discussions, and conducted surveys. “All designed to inform ourselves and our membership about what the community cares about and what they want us to pursue,” she says.
Six CSOL students assisted CJCC with its Community Action Forum in 2019, recording participant feedback and common themes and then presenting these ideas to the CJCC. Parnall found the students to be a valuable resource. “They demonstrated not only a general understanding of the criminal justice system but were adept at identifying the larger themes and issues that ran through the many diverse voices that participated in our series of community events,” she says.
Since beginning its work in 2015, the CJCC has seen the local jail population decrease by 20 percent and bookings dropped by half.