Pubdate: Sun, 06 Apr 2003
Source: State, The (SC)
Copyright: 2003 The State
Author: Brad Warthen


"THAT 45 PERCENT figure -- does that shock you? That's people who aren't in 
for a violent offense and don't have a violent offense on their record. I 
was shocked by that number."

Jon Ozmint, the new director of the S.C. Department of Corrections, said 
that, his voice filled with wonder, a month ago today. He was talking about 
the staggering number of people in prison in South Carolina who don't 
necessarily need to be there.

That number is just one of many facts that Mr. Ozmint was absorbing about 
the department he had recently been appointed to run. He had also learned 
that he had inherited a department full of dedicated, overworked, underpaid 
people whose jobs and very lives were endangered by draconian budget cuts 
over the last two years. And one of his first jobs was to find more cuts.

Last week, he reluctantly announced the results of his labors -- 148 jobs 
would be eliminated in the department. More than half of the positions were 
educators. That means that unless he can replace them with volunteers, 
fewer prisoners will have any chance at rehabilitation.

Worse, those cuts may have been just the first installment, since he is 
still far short of meeting his budget. And small shifts in the marketplace 
could erase the savings from those 148 positions. "If the price of gas goes 
up and the price of utilities, that six million's going to be gone," he said.

Meanwhile, Mr. Ozmint is looking for more creative solutions. One place 
he's likely to start is with that 45 percent figure. It refers to the 
number of people in the state's prisons who have never been convicted of a 
violent act.

Last week, he told me that figure was really more like 48 percent -- in 
other words, almost half of the 23,500 or so currently in the custody of 
his department.

He wonders, as do I, why all of those people need to be in prison, costing 
the taxpayers $14,000 apiece to house, guard and feed them, when they could 
be outside working and paying restitution for their crimes -- in other 
words, paying society back instead of being a financial burden.

Mr. Ozmint notes that some of the 48 percent need to be in prison, even 
though their crimes were "nonviolent." The prisons director still thinks 
like the prosecutor he was, and he has no desire to put major drug dealers 
out on the street.

But many of them don't need to be there, and Mr. Ozmint has started talking 
to lawmakers about ways to get some of those less-dangerous offenders out 
from behind bars while still keeping them on a tight rein.

He envisions a tiered approach:

* Those who are still regarded as somewhat risky could be monitored by 
satellite. It's relatively expensive (about $10 a day), but the prisoners 
would be out working and paying the cost themselves.

* Slightly lower-risk individuals could be on conventional electronic 
monitoring -- less expensive, but not as foolproof as the satellite systems.

* More trustworthy types would simply have to phone in frequently at set 
times from a certain telephone number, with voice-recognition software 
keeping them honest.

* Finally, the lowest-risk subjects would just check in by phone once a 
week or so, as parolees have done for ages.

An important part of this plan, as Mr. Ozmint sees it, is that all of these 
ex-prisoners would still be legally in the custody of the Corrections 
Department. That way, if they mess up and need to go back inside, they can 
be put there without having to clog up the courts with further hearings.

Mr. Ozmint points out emphatically that he's not criticizing judges for 
sending him these inmates in the first place. He says our laws leave judges 
little choice. All they have now to choose from is probation -- which many 
of these folks have already "flunked" -- and incarceration. That's why he'd 
like lawmakers to provide a third way.

And lawmakers, some of them at least, are receptive.

Sen. Mike Fair, R-Greenville, chairman of the Senate Corrections and 
Penology Committee, is looking for just such creative solutions. Of Mr. 
Ozmint's ideas, he said, "We're in the harness with him on that."

Sen. Fair notes the apparent irony that he and Mr. Ozmint and others seen 
as hard-line law-and-order types would be looking for ways to keep crooks 
out of prison. (Mocking his own reputation, his first response when asked 
about alternatives to incarceration was to say, "You mean, like firing 

He says he's learned a few things about the realities of the penal system 
since assuming the responsibility of his chairmanship. "The epiphany has 
been gradual," he said, but after visiting many of the state's prisons and 
observing the same dedicated, yet stressed, public servants who have 
impressed Mr. Ozmint with their stoic efforts, he has seen the need to 
change the state's approach.

Besides, "The money crunch has gotten our attention," he said.

He and Mr. Ozmint both want a committee -- one representing not only 
lawmakers, but solicitors, wardens and others who have a stake in the 
system -- to study alternatives, with the goal of presenting legislation 
next year.

"Perceived conservatives and perceived liberals are on the same page on 
this" now, says Sen. Fair. More and more, they're realizing that there has 
to be a better way.
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