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Bill would free up more prison beds

Gov. Mark Sanford threw his support Wednesday behind a proposed law to shift future nonviolent offenders to alternative sentences as a way to free up more than 2,400 prison beds for violent criminals and avoid the $300 million-plus expense of building a new prison.

The legislation -- drafted by the bipartisan Sentencing Reform Commission after a year of research -- is on the fast-track toward approval. The Senate passed a bill March 30. The full House Judiciary Committee likely will approve it, which would send it to the House floor.

Sanford said the plan will save money in a cash-strapped prison system that already spends less in almost every area than any other system in the country by diverting the future offenders to probation and parole and by offering more work credits and good behavior incentives.

The legislation does not provide any new money for the probation and parole system, which is already overtaxed.

South Carolina spends $35 per day on an inmate, much less than the Southeastern average of $52.90.

The state went from spending $64 million on about 9,000 inmates in 1983 to nearly $400 million on about 24,000 inmates today. Without a change in sentencing, the prison population is projected to grow to 27,900 inmates in the next five years. That population surge would cost an estimated $141 million in operation costs and require the construction of a new prison, estimated at $317 million.

Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Isle of Palms, said the sentencing reform plan represents one of the most significant bills he has helped play a role in during his time in the Statehouse. Campsen was a member of the Sentencing Reform Commission, which was comprised of legislators, judges and prisons director Jon Ozmint.

"If we do not implement the reforms in this piece legislation, we are going to have financial crisis in the Department of Corrections, in our criminal justice system, that we simply cannot manage," Campsen said. "We have $450 million liability staring us in the face if we don't do something."

Ozmint said the bill is a first in the state's history.

"We don't have a criminal justice system," Ozmint said. "What we have is piecemeal patchwork system of laws and policies." It was put together over the years "never with a comprehensive view that one might have on the other," he said.

As the savings come in over the next five years, Ozmint said lawmakers must go in and shift more money to the probation and parole system.

"The savings aren't immediate," Ozmint said. "They can't do it right now."

Falling tax revenues due to the recession and recent tax cuts have left the state broke. Probation and parole agents are overwhelmed as it is with larger case loads and less money, but the prison system isn't any better off. The Corrections Department is running a $30 million deficit this year.

The agency ran a $45.5 million deficit last year and a $3.9 million deficit the year before that.

Sanford and Ozmint worked on legislation similar to the reform plan seven years ago that designed an alternative sentencing program.

"This has been a long-term goal of this administration based on the reality of the numbers," the governor said.

The widespread support for the legislation is a result of the process the commission underwent to draft it. During the last year, the commission took information and incorporated feedback from solicitors, victim advocates, public defenders, national experts and state law enforcement authorities into the plan.

Victoria Middleton, executive director the South Carolina office for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the bill will do good but doesn't go far enough. For example, she said the state should push back mandatory minimums sentences.

"Reform is vital and overdue," Middleton. "There is no question that our justice system is broken."