Pubdate: Wed, 24 Feb 2010
Source: Post and Courier, The (Charleston, SC)
Copyright: 2010 Evening Post Publishing Co.
Note: Rarely prints LTEs received from outside its circulation area
Author: Glenn Smith, Yvonne Wenger, The Post and Courier


Move Would Be Response to Budget Deficits

COLUMBIA -- South Carolina will consider opening its prison doors and 
freeing up to 3,000 inmates before their sentences are finished as a 
way to save money during a crippling economic time.

States from Connecticut to California have adopted or are mulling 
similar measures to keep budgets afloat, but critics warn that these 
initiatives could be destined to fail if not accompanied by adequate 
support and supervision.

The state's lead budget writer, Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, 
raised the idea Tuesday at the Budget and Control Board before the 
panel voted 5-0 to let the Department of Corrections spend $30 
million beyond its budget to keep prisons operating.

Leatherman said Corrections Director Jon Ozmint has the immediate 
authority to release prisoners early. Ozmint disputes that interpretation.

While Gov. Mark Sanford pledged to sit down with Ozmint and 
Leatherman to discuss the matter, some law enforcement officials made 
it clear that they are firmly opposed to the plan.

North Charleston Police Chief Jon Zumalt called the proposal "bad 
news for communities across the state." Deep cuts to the state 
Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services already have led 
to very limited oversight of offenders who often are released to the 
community with no job, no work skills and a high likelihood of 
committing new crimes, he said.

"To simply release prisoners from an overcrowded prison system is 
myopic and places the personal safety of all residents in North 
Charleston and all of South Carolina at significant risk," Zumalt said.

"We have nearly 2,000 people in our city right now on probation or 
parole. This would probably send several thousand more to our 
community, and it would overwhelm us."

Leatherman said at this point he does not have information about what 
types of prisoners could be released early, how many or how quickly 
that could happen.

Ozmint said the Corrections Department would have to close three 
institutions, fire 700 employees and release 3,000 inmates to save 
$30 million, the amount of the latest deficit. The early releases 
could be structured according to an inmate's crime or the time left 
in his sentence.

The agency's budget is $399.4 million for the current budget year. 
The state's budget for next year rounds out at about $5.2 billion, 
more than $2 billion less than the spending plan three years ago.

Ozmint said there is no room for more budget cuts. South Carolina 
prisons run for less money than any others in the nation, he said. 
The Corrections Department ran a $45.5 million deficit last year and 
a $3.9 million deficit in 2007-08.

Meanwhile, the prison population has topped 24,000, the highest ever. 
The system is built for 18,000 offenders.

Zumalt said the state needs to look at the prison overcrowding issue 
in context with an overall restructuring of the criminal justice 
system. He said he supports efforts to keep repeat, violent criminals 
behind bars while finding programs that help nonviolent offenders 
change their behaviors and learn job skills.

Sanford, a two-term Republican, also thinks Leatherman's suggestion 
calls for a comprehensive solution, such as the one put forward this 
month by the state Sentencing Reform Commission.

The report recommends a series of legislative initiatives that would 
keep prison beds open for the most violent criminals and divert 
nonviolent offenders while saving $92 million in corrections costs 
and preventing the need for the state to build a $317 million prison.

The governor said he is concerned about preserving the separate 
constitutional powers vested in the judicial, legislative and 
executive branches. The state also should weigh the input from 
victims, he said.

Laura Hudson, executive director of the South Carolina Crime Victims 
Council, said the state should shack prisoners up in tents with razor 
wire before it considers setting them free until they have served the 
time they were sentenced to by a judge.

"I think we should just find cheaper ways to incarcerate them," 
Hudson said. "When you go into a courtroom and turn your rights as a 
person over to the court, you expect some modicum of justice."

Ozmint said he could support releasing some nonviolent offenders, but 
he has many concerns about early releases.

"We're not sure that that number of releases can be done safely," 
Ozmint said. The issue could be headed for the state attorney 
general, Ozmint said.

Mark Plowden, communications director for Attorney General Henry 
McMaster, said McMaster's office does not agree that state law allows 
the release of prisoners because of a lack of money.

"Prison sentences are valid orders of the court and must be 
enforced," Plowden said in a statement. "When a court order places a 
person in prison, that order must be carried out, and certainly may 
not be ignored or overruled by budgetary interests."

Richard Jerome, project manager at the Public Safety Performance 
Project for the Pew Center for the States, said the early release of 
prisoners is a catch phrase that covers a broad range of actions by 
different states.

More than 30 states have programs that allow prisoners to earn time 
off their sentences for good behaviors, a policy already in effect in 
South Carolina, he said. Some states also allow early release for the 
completion of substance-abuse treatment or classes to earn diplomas.

"No states would say, 'We're releasing prisons because we can't 
afford it,' " Jerome said.

Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen said the state would need to be 
very cautious in determining who would be eligible for early release. 
Even petty thieves can wreak havoc on a community if the proper 
programs and supervision are not in place to keep them on the 
straight and narrow, he said.

"The thing people have to consider is that while this might be some 
big savings for the state and the prison system, what kind of deficit 
in terms of victims and community impact will you have to recover 
from if you make the wrong decision," Mullen said. 
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