South Carolina was a pioneer in the smart justice movement. After decades of prison expansion across the country, our state was one of the first to hit pause and ask whether more prisons were actually buying us more safety.
Here’s what we were up against: Our prison rolls had tripled in just 25 years. Spending on prisons had increased six-fold. We had a $27 million deficit, and were looking down the barrel at a $300 million bill that taxpayers were unwilling to pay for yet another prison.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers joined me in taking a close look at our justice system. Crime had come down significantly since the mid-’90s, as it had throughout the country, but our prison population kept growing. It was our laws — not our crime rate — that kept driving the numbers up.
Under those old laws, thousands of people convicted of low-level crimes were churning in and out of our courts and corrections systems. They came back again and again, because locking them up didn’t solve drug dependence. It didn’t solve mental illness or the education and employment issues that drove their behavior. For many of them, prison was making things worse.
In 2010, I sponsored Senate bill 1154 to correct course. By focusing our prison beds on those who posed a serious public safety threat, and strengthening supervision and services in the community, we’ve since seen the prison population drop 14 percent. Taxpayers have saved half a billion dollars, and crime has continued to drop. Inspired by our work, state legislatures in Georgia, North Carolina, Alabama and Louisiana all changed their laws too, and the U.S. prison population is coming down for the first time in more than four decades.
As the reforms took effect and outperformed our expectations, many skeptics became believers. We’ve proven the concept of smart justice reform.
I feel immense pride in the work we’ve done. But we haven’t crossed the finish line. Even with improvements, our prisons remain overcrowded. We still lock up far too many people for violations of conditions of supervision rather than a new offense. We still lock up far too many people for low-level crimes who could be safely managed in the community. The nation is in a state of emergency over the opioid epidemic, a crisis that requires new and expanded partnerships between public health and law enforcement.
The political moment is right to push further. At the urging of Gov. Henry McMaster, Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman, House Speaker Jay Lucas, and Chief Justice Don Beatty, we’re setting criminal justice reform 2.0 as a top priority for the next legislative session. They’ve directed me and the Sentencing Reform Oversight Committee to take a comprehensive look at the current prison trends, build on our momentum and our culture of data-driven reform, and deliver aggressive recommendations for changes that will not just win us most-improved but lift us up nationally as a model state in criminal justice.
I’m honored to take on this task, and excited for the work ahead. I know we can do better. Now let’s do better.
Sen. Malloy is a Darlington attorney and chairman of the Sentencing Reform Oversight Committee; contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.