Pubdate: Tue, 05 Aug 2003
Source: Anderson Independent-Mail (SC)
Copyright: 2003 Independent Publishing Company, a division of E.W. Scripps
Bookmark: (Incarceration)


Jon Ozmint may be new at the business of being Corrections Department
director, but his contention that overcrowded prisons are a strain on
the system and a drain on the taxpayers is as old as the penal system

Mr. Ozmint is echoing the sentiments of prison officials nationwide
who believe that alternative sentencing for some nonviolent criminals
would free up prison space that is increasingly at a premium. Budget
cuts as well as increases in the prison population resulting from
minimum mandatory sentencing and blanket three-strikes legislation
that does not differentiate among crimes have created prison
overcrowding throughout the United States. The result is that
rehabilitation efforts may be retarded or even tabled in the problem
of simply housing and feeding inmates.

According to Mr. Ozmint, 48 percent of those incarcerated in South
Carolina are in for nonviolent offenses. These can range from charges
related to drug use or distribution to nonpayment of child support.
While all are crimes and punishable by law, not all crimes are such
that a prison sentence is either necessary or helpful, either to the
inmate or the community as a whole.

The debate on whether incarceration is for punishment or
rehabilitation is another old one. But the ideal should be a
combination of the two. Prison is punishment for breaking the law.
That is elementary. But prisons can also be places where lives are
turned around, where offenders are shown they have alternatives to
crime to make their way in the world.

We were surprised to read that legislation is in the planning stages
that would provide mandatory drug treatment for nonviolent drug
offenders. Our shock was not because we disagree with the concept but
because we're stunned our state does not already have such a program
in place. For some in prison, their life of crime began with illegal
drug use or alcohol abuse. Is it not possible that these lives are

Few lawmakers want to appear that they don't take crime seriously,
that someone who has broken the law perhaps would be better served -
and thus the community better served - if they are not in prison. But
there are creative ways to sentence the nonviolent that might even be
of benefit while acknowledging the perpetrators' crime. One
possibility is work programs where the inmate is aided in finding a
job and then is required to keep the job as a condition of release.

Greenville-area prosecutor Bob Ariail told reporters he supports the
idea of alternative sentencing for nonviolent offenses but rightly
pointed out details of any plan are important. We agree that the
details are vital but we'd add that each case should be treated
individually. Even with identical crimes committed, two individuals
could well have two diametrically opposed potentials for
rehabilitation or for returning to prison for a similar or even more
serious crime.

Nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of
Justice Statistics, in 2001, 6.6 million people were in prison, on
probation or on parole. That's 3.1 percent of all residents of this
country - or 1 in every 32 adults.

All of those have broken a law and all deserve to be punished. But not
all should be incarcerated. Sometimes a petty thief can become a
master one, even someone who moves on to more violent activities
because of what he has learned in prison.

No one wants a criminal, someone who has broken the laws of our state,
to get a pass on his or her crime. And alternative sentencing is not
the easy way out. Going through a drug treatment program can be even
more harsh than any amount of hard labor, depending upon one's level
of addiction.

But alternative sentencing would put almost half of our state's prison
population, those who are nonviolent offenders, in a community earning
a living. They would be paying taxes instead of draining the
taxpayers' resources.

And - here's a concept - a former drug abuser or irresponsible parent
or petty thief might actually turn his or her life around and become a
conscientious and valued member of society. 
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