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 terms.
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.
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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.