Pubdate: Sun, 04 Jan 2004
Source: Post and Courier, The (Charleston, SC)
Copyright: 2004 Evening Post Publishing Co.
Author: Jeffrey Collins


New Bill Would Apply To Nonviolent Offenders

COLUMBIA--Corrections Director Jon Ozmint says his agency needs 
alternatives to prison for some nonviolent offenders and greater 
flexibility on cutting inmate's sentences for good behavior.

The alternatives are needed in part because lawmakers will not keep giving 
the prison system more money even though South Carolina will finish 2003 
with 1,100 more inmates than the year before, Ozmint said.

On behalf of Ozmint, House Speaker David Wilkins and three other lawmakers 
have prefiled a bill that would allow nonviolent offenders serving less 
than five years in prison to be eligible for programs such as house arrest, 
electronic monitoring and daily supervision.

In an opinion article published Dec. 27 in The (Columbia) State, Ozmint 
said alternative sentences have been successful in new drug courts across 
the state.

"This would be an entirely new idea in sentencing, giving offenders a 'real 
prison' experience first, while offering an opportunity to advance to an 
alternate form of incarceration," Ozmint wrote.

He decided on the proposal after considering what lawmakers would accept in 
this session.

"This is just the first step," Ozmint told The Associated Press on Friday.

Other ideas Ozmint set aside for now include reducing sentences for 
nonviolent inmates who get their high school diplomas and releasing inmates 
at their last parole hearing before their sentence ends instead of waiting 
months for them to "max out."

The current proposal would expand to more inmates good behavior credits 
that can shorten sentences while giving prison administrators more power to 
issue or take away the credits.

Violent offenders, which make up about half of all inmates, would not be 
eligible for the alternative sentences, and the new time for good behavior 
policy would not effect anyone serving a life sentence.

"The enactment of this legislation should result in a gradual, but slight 
reduction in the growth of our inmate population in a manner consistent 
with public safety considerations," Ozmint wrote in the newspaper opinion 

The Corrections Department will end this year with more than 24,000 
inmates, an increase of 2,500 prisoners in three years, and requires a 
budget of close to $300 million, Ozmint wrote.

The agency ran a $21 million deficit last fiscal year and has lost more 
than $70 million in funding since the state's budget woes began about four 
years ago.

On one side, the budget constraints have made South Carolina prisons the 
second-most efficient in the nation, spending about $12,300 per inmate per 
year. On the other side, Ozmint and his predecessors have slashed so much 
the director has said there is almost nothing left to cut.

The proposals reverse a get-tough trend in South Carolina of harsher sentences.

"We've painted all our felons with the same brush for some years," said 
Senate Corrections and Penology Committee Chairman Mike Fair. "But there is 
some validity to treating violent and nonviolent offenders differently."

Fair and Wilkins, both Greenville Republicans, expect the bill to get 
serious consideration when the Legislature reconvenes this month. Democrats 
who have been calling for a different approach to the state's "lock them up 
and throw away the key" mentality likely will support the measure, too, 
said committee member Sen. Kay Patterson.

Republicans "haven't had a change of heart," said Patterson, D-Columbia. 
"They just know they don't have any more money to keep locking people up."

Violent offenders need to stay in prison, he said, but he has never seen a 
reason to keep nonviolent criminals in prison for long stretches.

Another provision of the law would allow prison officials to restore some 
good behavior credits to inmates who lose them because of misbehavior. 
Also, inmates who commit "a particularly meritorious act" that prevents or 
lessens an attack on an employee or other person can have up to 180 days 
shaved off their sentences, according to the bill. The bill has a few 
sticks to go along with the carrots. If a court determines an inmate is 
filing frivolous lawsuits, the credits can be taken away.

Prisoner advocates appreciate the moves but also want changes made to a 
parole system that rarely releases offenders until they reach the end of 
their sentences, said Lillian Swanson, director of the South Carolina 
chapter of Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants.
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MAP posted-by: Larry Stevens