Pubdate: Fri, 26 Mar 2010
Source: State, The (SC)
Copyright: 2010 The State


A bill designed to reduce the number of people going to jail in South
Carolina for minor offenses and let more people out on parole received
key approval Thursday.

The bill approved by the Senate is expected to save taxpayers money
while providing improved oversight and training of nonviolent
offenders. Proponents said it will ensure there's prison space for
high-risk, violent criminals, and that they'll serve longer prison

People convicted of nonviolent crimes account for nearly half of the
state's 25,000 inmates, and nearly one in five inmates are imprisoned
for drug crimes, according to the commission's February report.

Sen. Gerald Malloy, an attorney who was chairman of the commission,
said the bipartisan bill reforms a hodgepodge of laws enacted in
recent decades, often as knee-jerk reactions to a particular local
crime. Inmates are most commonly in prison on drug charges, burglary,
check fraud and driving under suspension, in that order, he said.

Providing education and supervision, rather than just throwing
low-level offenders in prison, can "turn them from being a tax burden
to a taxpayer," Malloy said.

Legislators have embraced the long-overdue changes largely because of
the state's budget crunch, he said, noting that incarcerating someone
costs $14,500 a year, compared to roughly $2,000 for supervised probation.

The state Corrections Department has been allowed to run a deficit for
three consecutive years, as officials balked at the idea of releasing
inmates early to make up for budget cuts.

South Carolina's inmate population and its cost to taxpayers have
soared since 1983, from less than 9,200 inmates costing the state $64
million, to 25,000 costing $394 million. If trends continue, there
will be 3,200 more inmates in five years, costing an extra $141
million to house and feed them, and several hundred million more for
construction of new prisons, the report said.


The highlights from the bill passed by Senate lawmakers Thursday.
Three big changes.

1. More focus on drug dealers. The bill deletes mandatory minimum
sentences for a first conviction on simple drug possession, allows the
possibility of probation or parole for certain second and third drug
possession convictions, and removes sentencing disparities between
crack and cocaine possession.

2. More home confinement. The bill will call for home detention for
third-offense driving under suspension. This would relieve some prison
crowding. The bill also increases penalties if someone driving with on
a suspended license injures someone.

3. More violent crime. More penalties. The bill changes the status of
two dozen crimes from nonviolent to violent - including sex crimes
involving children - meaning those inmates can't be paroled until they
serve at least 85 percent of their time. 
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