COLUMBIA, SC — 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, officials say, is sentencing reform -- a sweeping 2010 bill that 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 thats 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 departments budget blessing is another agencys 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 departments 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 states 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. Im going to fight hard to help out (Probation, Parole and Pardon Services).
We were not doing the job
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.
Those incentives motivated 36-year-old Benjamin Hodges, who was on probation for drug possession. He kept up with his payments and stayed out of trouble, shortening his probation period by seven months saving him $350, or $50 a month.
Jail wasnt even a deterrent for me to not do it again, Hodges said. Sitting in jail is not going to help anyone who is on drugs.
The probation department now assesses all offenders to determine their risk for reoffending. If an offender has no family support, the department will try to get that person involved in a church, if they are religious, or in some other support group for encouragement.
In Spartanburg County, probation officers doubled the rate of youthful offenders completing probation successfully just by assigning each one a counselor, according to Jeff Harmon, the agencys Spartanburg agent in charge.
The department still punishes offenders. But prison is now the last option.
Now, if offenders break the rules, they could have to pick up trash on the highway, report to their probation officers more frequently or spend a weekend in jail what Department of Corrections director Bill Byars refers to as a refresher course.
Frankly, we have had to relearn the business of probation and parole, said Kela E. Thomas, the probation departments director.
It appears to be working.
In 2012, the agency revoked the probations of 3,323 former inmates 1,461 fewer than in 2010.
Bigger impact in the future
State prison officials say the biggest plus from sentencing reforms still is to come.
Yes, the prison population has dropped. But most of that drop was because of fewer revoked probations.
In August, three new circuit judges will start hearing cases in South Carolina, making a dent in the states tremendous backlog of criminal cases. As a result, prison officials expect to see a spike in long-term prison sentences.
Sentencing reform will affect those long-term sentences, though not immediately.
Nonviolent offenders who had served at least two-year sentences formerly had a choice: They could serve out the rest of their sentences or get out early on probation. Most chose to serve out their sentences, not wanting to deal with the annoyance and expense of supervised release.
But under sentencing reform, those inmates wont have a choice. All released inmates must be on some sort of supervised release now.
The real test of sentencing reform will be whether it keeps offenders from committing more crimes and getting even longer sentences, said Charles Bradbury, the Department of Corrections director of research.
That is what is building up in our system, the long-term violent offender, Bradbury said. If we can reduce the criminality of those offenders, we will have a much bigger impact in the future.
In the meantime, the Department of Corrections has been able to focus more of its time and money on the most dangerous criminals.
Before sentencing reform, the prison population was spilt about 50-50 between violent and nonviolent inmates. Today, 62 percent of inmates are incarcerated for violent offenses, said John Carmichael, the Corrections Departments deputy director for programs and services.
That shift has allowed the department to focus more of its resources on its most dangerous inmates.
Incarcerating fewer nonviolent inmates means that lower security prisons are operating at only 75 percent to 80 percent of their capacity. That has allowed the Corrections Department to shift resources to higher security prisons, which are operating at 94 percent to 97 percent of their capacity.
Were trying to make them safer, Carmichael said.
A chance to lead
So far, South Carolina has saved about $3 million from sentencing reform, according to an analysis by the Vera Institute of Justice.
But that money does not go back into the states coffers. Instead, the sentencing reform law says it must be reinvested in more sentencing reforms.
The Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services want to spend the savings in three ways, including:
• $772,220 to train agents to focus on the offenders who are the most likely to commit another crime, including drug addicts, sex offenders and mentally ill offenders.
• $197,800 for training.
• $77,649 for a Victim Impact Educational Program to show offenders how their crimes hurt others in the hope that this will keep them from committing more crimes.
Malloy, the Democratic state senator who wrote the law and now leads a committee that oversees its implementation, says the reform effort has caught the attention of other states. In 2012, Malloy said, he traveled to Oregon, New Orleans, Denver, Chicago, Massachusetts and Georgia to talk about what South Carolina has done. Georgia passed its own sentencing reform law in 2012.
South Carolina is usually the first of everything bad and last in everything good, Malloy said.
Weve got a chance to lead in something.
Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.