South Carolina Sentencing Reform in The Works

According to WIS, a bill designed to reduce the number of people going to jail in South Carolina for minor offenses and let more people out on parole received key approval last week.

The bill has been approved by the Senate and is expected to save taxpayers money and provide for improved oversight and training for nonviolent offenders.

Proponents of the bill feel it will ensure there’s prison space for high-risk, violent criminals, and that they’ll serve longer prison terms.

According to a report generted this past February, nearly half of South Carolina’s 25,000 inmates committed nonviolent crimes. Nearly one in five inmates are imprisoned for drug crimes.

Sen. Gerald Malloy, chairman of the commission that spent more than a year reviewing sentencing policies, said inmates are most commonly in prison for:

  • drug charges,
  • burglary,
  • check fraud, and
  • driving under suspension

Providing education and supervision, rather than just throwing low-level offenders in prison, can “turn them from being a tax burden to a taxpayer,” Malloy said.

In the midst of our state budget cruch,  incarcerating someone costs $14,500 a year, versus the roughly $2,000 it costs per year for supervised probation.

The SC Corrections Department has been allowed to run a deficit for three consecutive years, as officials balked at the idea of releasing inmates early to make up for budget cuts.

South Carolina’s inmate population and its cost to taxpayers have soared since 1983, rising from a population of less than 9,200 which cost the state $64 million, to a population of 25,000 costing the State $394 million per year.

The February report further noted that if trends continue, you can expect 3,200 more inmates in five years, to the tune of an extra $141 million to house and feed them, as well as several hundred million more for construction of new prisons.

Victoria Middleton, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in South Carolina, argues  that harsh sentencing does not make society safer, but rather causes prison to be a training ground for creating more violent offenders.

Other notable facts about the bill include the fact that the bill:

  • deletes mandatory minimum sentences for a first conviction on simple drug possession,
  • allows the possibility of probation or parole for certain second and third drug possession convictions, and
  • it removes sentencing disparities between crack and cocaine possession.

The idea is to concentrate on incarcerating the people pushing the drugs, rather than the users, Malloy said.

But Middleton said she’s disappointed trafficking remains a violent crime.

“We would like to have seen the bill go further toward removing mandatory minimums and three-strike penalties, which restrict judges’ options and don’t allow for context,” she said.

Other changes include allowing home detention for third-offense driving under suspension, but increasing penalties if someone driving with on a suspended license injures someone.

The bill changes the status of two dozen crimes from nonviolent to violent — including sex crimes involving children — meaning those inmates can’t be paroled until they serve at least 85 percent of their time.



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