How sentencing reform is saving SC taxpayers money

Fewer offenders are in jail, more on probation: ‘We had to get smart on crime’

01/13/2013 9:26 PM

01/13/2013 9:27 PM

In 2010 – with the state Department of Corrections running a $27 million deficit – South Carolina projected its prison population would swell by 3,200 inmates by 2014, costing taxpayers $175 million to make room for those inmates and $66 million a year to take care of them.

Instead, the number of inmates imprisoned has dropped by more than 2,700, and the Corrections Department has closed two prisons.

And taxpayers saved $3 million in 2012 alone.

The reason?

Sentencing reform, officials say.

A sweeping 2010 bill radically changed how South Carolina treats its criminals. Written by a Democratic state senator and signed by a Republican governor, the law strengthened penalties for violent crimes while offering alternative sentences for nonviolent crimes. Passage of the law put South Carolina “at the forefront of states advancing research-driven criminal justice polices,” according to the Pew Center on the States.

“You see a lot of legislation that’s passed that seems to be tough on crime,” said state Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington, author of the sentencing reform. “We had to get smart on crime.”

But one state department’s budget blessing is another agency’s fiscal burden.

While the prison population is falling, the number of South Carolinians on probation is soaring. Agents at the state Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon services now are supervising 1,409 more offenders than they were two years ago. Each probation agent supervises an average of 97 cases, far above the national average of 50 cases.

To help, Gov. Nikki Haley wants to give the agency $1.2 million in additional money next year to hire 25 new probation agents. It is part of the probation department’s three-year plan to hire 156 new agents to bring the average caseload down to 80 cases per agent.

State lawmakers have $263 million in “new” money – money that should recur in future budget years – to spend in the 2013-14 budget. But nearly all of that will be gobbled up by the state’s Medicaid health insurance program for the poor and disabled, and increases in the cost of state employees’ health insurance.

More money for probation services must be a priority, some state officials say. They say the state is just beginning to see the benefits of sentencing reform. Probation, Parole and Pardon Services plays a crucial role in making the reforms work, they add, and not funding it could set the reforms back.

“We have done a good job of placing more responsibility and a heavier workload on some agencies, but not funding them and giving them the ability to do it,” said state Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, chairman of the House budget subcommittee that oversees state law enforcement agencies’ budgets. “I’m going to fight hard to help out (Probation, Parole and Pardon Services).”

It costs $1,088 a year to supervise someone on probation in South Carolina. It costs $17,342 a year to keep that same person in prison.

But, in 2010, the Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services was one of the largest contributors to the increasing prison population. That year, the department revoked the probation of 4,783 people – mostly for “technical violations,” including missing a payment, including restitution or to offset the cost of their supervised release from prison.

“Our solution was just to put them back into the Department of Corrections at an even higher cost to the state,” said Scott Norton, deputy director of field operations for the probation department. “We had to go back and acknowledge we were not doing the job” needed.

The department was focused on punishing offenders who did not follow the rules. Sentencing reform forced the department to reward offenders who did follow the rules. Now, offenders can reduce their supervision by 20 days for every month that they follow the rules. A shorter sentence means the offender pays less money in supervision fees. In some cases, he or she even earns a refund.

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