Pubdate: Sun, 04 Jan 2004
Source: Charlotte Observer (NC)
Copyright: 2004 The Charlotte Observer
Author: Jeffrey Collins, Associated Press


To Cut Crowding, Bill Proposes Alternatives to Incarceration for Some

COLUMBIA - Corrections Director Jon Ozmint says his agency needs
alternatives to prison for some nonviolent offenders and greater
flexibility on cutting 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
like house arrest, electronic monitoring or 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.

Ozmint 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 cutting sentences for
nonviolent inmates who get high school diplomas.

The current proposal would expand good behavior credits that can
shorten sentences to more inmates, 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 policy on time
for good behavior 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 article.

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 S.C. prisons the
second-most efficient in the nation, with spending at 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

"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."

Greenville Republicans Fair and Wilkins expect the bill to get serious
consideration when the legislature reconvenes this January. Democrats
calling for a change from the "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, Patterson said. But he has
never seen a reason to keep nonviolent criminals in prison for long
periods. "That just hardens them up," Patterson said.

Another provision of the law would allow prison officials to restore
some good behavior credits to inmates who lose them because of

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.

But 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 finish their
sentences, said Lillian Swanson, director of the S.C. chapter of
Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants, a prison reform group.

Swanson said she also wishes prison officials would not treat all
violent inmates alike.

"There are many so-called violent criminals that are neither violent
or much of a threat to the community," she said in an e-mail.
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