Pubdate: Sun, 28 Feb 2010
Source: State, The (SC)
Copyright: 2010 The State
Author: Gerald Malloy, Guest Columnist


The problems with our criminal justice system can seem insurmountable:
The violent crime rate remains too high, violent offenders are
returning to a life of crime at an unacceptable pace, and the prison
population is growing at an unsustainable rate. Even if we could
afford to keep building new prisons, it would not improve the level of
safety for South Carolinians.

But while we cannot build our way out of the problem or spend our way
to a solution, we can make a number of commonsense reforms that will
make the system stronger and our communities safer.

History shows that simply spending more money does not solve the
problem. Spending on prisons already has jumped more than 500 percent
in the past 25 years. Yet all that spending did not stop the revolving
door of justice. In fact, it has gotten worse. Recidivism - the rate
at which inmates are returned to prison within three years of being
released - increased from 27.6 percent in 1999 to 32.7 percent in
2003. But the good news is that we can do better, and we know how to
get there.

Over the course of the past year, I had the honor of serving as chair
of the S.C. Sentencing Reform Commission. During a time when politics
and ideologies too often divide us, this bipartisan commission of
senators, representatives, judges and the director of the Department
of Corrections worked together for more than a year to reach consensus
on a set of recommendations that will make our state safer.

The commission was committed to an inclusive and balanced process,
hearing from stakeholders throughout the criminal justice system,
including law enforcement, prosecutors, public defenders, victims'
advocates and survivors of crime. We worked with experts to analyze
sentencing and corrections data so that our recommendations would be
based on facts and research.

We made it our goal to recommend solutions that would hold criminals
accountable, reduce the numbers of repeat offenders, protect victims
of crime and maximize our state's scarce financial resources. I firmly
believe the commission's recommendations meet those goals and reflect
the needs and concerns of the community.

Serious, chronic and violent offenders belong in prison, and the
expense of locking them up for a long time is justified many times
over. To keep these criminals behind bars, the commission developed a
set of strong and balanced recommendations that include adding more
offenses to the violent crimes list; restructuring drug offenses to
focus on those that pose the largest risks to public safety;
increasing restitution limits for crime victims; mandating reentry
supervision so that offenders do not leave prison without any
supervision; and requiring parole decisions to include an
evidence-based assessment of risk.

But as the commission examined South Carolina's prison data, it became
clear that non-violent, lower-level offenders - for example, those
guilty of shoplifting or driving under suspension - are filling the
state's prisons. Forty-nine percent of the prisoners in South Carolina
are serving time for non-violent offenses. Successful programs in
other states such as Texas and Kansas have shown that there are better
ways to keep these offenders crime- and drug-free.

The time to act is now. Since 1983, South Carolina's prison population
has nearly tripled. On its current course, the increase in the inmate
population would add an additional $141 million to the Department of
Corrections' operating costs over the next five years - on top of its
$334 million annual operating budget. In addition to operating costs,
new prison space would need to be constructed at a cost to taxpayers
of approximately $317 million. This is money the state does not have.

By using corrections dollars more efficiently - making them work
harder - we ensure violent criminals remain locked up, reduce the
likelihood that low-level offenders will commit new crimes and free up
resources for law enforcement efforts that prevent crime in the first

The unanimous recommendations of the commission served as the basis
for bipartisan legislation that was introduced this month in the
Senate with 26 co-sponsors. We are now holding subcommittee hearings
on the legislation, before it makes its way to the full Senate and
then to the House. It is through bipartisanship that we can solve
these problems, during troubled times, leading to a safer and better
South Carolina.

Mr. Malloy, a Hartsville attorney, represents Darlington,
Chesterfield, Lee and Marlboro counties in the state Senate. He
chaired the S.C. Sentencing Reform Commission. 
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jo-D