South Carolina’s prison population fell 2.8 percent in 2013 from the previous year, saving taxpayers $5.2 million, according to a new report.
The savings are the result of sentencing reform, a 2010 law that strengthened penalties for violent crimes while offering alternative sentences for nonviolent offenses. Nonviolent inmates – who made up more than half of all S.C. prison inmates in 2002 – now account for 34 percent of the state’s prison population, according to a report from the state Sentencing Reform Oversight Committee.
Lawmakers are happy the state is saving money. But they are arguing over how to spend those savings.
Some say part of the money should go to the Department of Probation, Pardon and Parole Services, which has seen its probation population grow by 8 percent since sentencing reform went into effect in 2010. Others say the agency has misused the taxpayer money it already has, arguing it should be merged with the state Department of Corrections.
The probation department wants lawmakers to give it $1.8 million of the $5.2 million in savings so it can hire more agents to better handle its growing caseload. But state Sen. Mike Fair, R-Greenville, chairman of the Senate budget subcommittee that oversees the probation department’s budget, does not want to give the money to the agency.
Fair says the probation department had its chance to hire more agents two years ago, when lawmakers gave it $3.8 million to hire 47 new agents. But a review by the Legislative Audit Council found the agency did not hire agents. Instead, it used the money to boost its cash reserves to more than $15 million.
Fair said the Senate Finance Committee would be more comfortable if the probation department was merged into the Department of Corrections – an idea that is endorsed by Republican Gov. Nikki Haley but has been blocked by Senate Democrats.
“We will have a lot more confidence in the numbers when you have a single management and accountability source over that whole area,” Fair said. “This consolidation needs to happen.”
Probation officials dispute the Legislative Audit Council report, saying they did hire 47 new agents – they just could not keep them employed. Of the $1.8 million that probation officials are asking for, they want to spend $1.2 million to hire 20 additional agents. Also – in a separate budget request – probation officials are asking state lawmakers for an extra $1.1 million to give 312 agents pay raises of up to $2,500.
The agency says its starting salary – $28,672 – is lower than other state law-enforcement agencies. The proposed pay raises would give agents an automatic $1,500 boost in salary once the have been on the job 18 months, at five years and, again, at seven years. Agents who stay 10 years, 12 years and 15 years would get an extra $2,000, while agents with 20 years of service would get an extra $2,500.
Lawmakers did not give state workers a raise in the 2013 budget, but they have been more generous with law-enforcement salaries. Lawmakers gave raises in 2013 to corrections officers at maximum security facilities, a nod to their increasingly dangerous work environments.
In a written statement, probation director Kela Thomas said she appreciates “any outside agency pointing out ways we can improve our operations” and that she “looks forward” to working with the governor and state Legislature.
State Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington, called the probation agency’s budget “a tremendous challenge,” and said the agency “has to step up to the plate and make sure they secure their funding.”
Malloy opposes Fair’s proposal to merge the agency with the Department of Corrections.
“They haven’t shown me in a substantive way how it is going to make a difference. Can it work? Oh, absolutely, it can work. We can work with a monarchy. But the thing is that’s not what we have,” Malloy said. “We are doing the best job with what we have, and we are showing success.”
Malloy pointed to the probation department’s successes, including reducing re-admissions to S.C. prisons by 1,611 since 2011, saving the state a total of $12.5 million, according to the agency’s report to the Sentencing Reform Commission.
“It would be different if we were complacent and nothing was moving,” Malloy said. “Savings for this fiscal year over $5 million? That’s significant for South Carolina.”
Reach Beam at (803) 386-7038.