The core of conservatism is the dignity of every individual and the value of every life. That’s why we talk about individual freedom, self-reliance and personal responsibility. Conservatives fight for limited government to preserve these sacred goals. And that’s why we care about prison reform. The values conservatives hold dear are jeopardized when prisons fail to deliver results. We owe it to victims, law enforcement and the citizens of our communities to act.
In 2010, South Carolina showed the nation how a conservative state can lead on criminal justice reform. Back then, we stood squarely at a crossroads. Our prison population was growing at an unsustainable rate, and we were forecasting the need to burden our taxpayers by building more prisons. We had to take action. The Palmetto State could go to an old playbook of tough on crime: incarcerate more, spend more and break an already strained budget. Or we could redefine what it means to be “tough on crime” by adopting smart policies aimed at keeping people safer, reintegrating citizens into the community and taming expensive correctional spending.
Fortunately, state leaders chose a new direction. S.1154 addressed the enormous number of people churning in and out of our prisons for low-level nonviolent crimes and violations of supervision conditions. They also established the Sentencing Reform Oversight Committee, made up of legislators, stakeholders and policy experts, to track the law’s performance and make ongoing recommendations for reform in the future.
The results were transformative. Our violent and property crime decreased by 16 percent, and recidivism dropped by 10 percent. Our prison population dropped by 14 percent. As a result, we have shut down seven facilities and saved taxpayers nearly half a billion dollars. Today, based on this innovative approach and the tireless efforts of the men and women at the departments of Corrections and Parole and Probation Services trusted with its implementation, more people are returning to their families and communities and becoming productive, tax-paying citizens.
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As reforms outperformed our expectations, skeptics became believers, and practitioners in courtrooms and the corrections system have built a culture of following evidence-based practices.
Still, our prisons are understaffed and struggle with a growing threat of violence within facilities. Therefore, we should pursue evidence based-reform that we know can deliver results. Prison resources should be spent on those who pose a threat to public safety and are not wasted denying liberty to those who can be safely supervised in the community.
I was encouraged this summer when Gov. Henry McMaster and legislative leaders tasked the S.C. Sentencing Reform Oversight Committee with proposing additional reforms. Based on the initial findings of this bi-partisan group of legislators, there is clearly more work we can do.
Nearly 80 percent of the prison population is still incarcerated for non-violent offenses. Those convicted are staying in prison too long, nearly a third longer than in 2010. Our system drains $500 million from taxpayers and has a negative impact on families and communities. There are also gaps in supervision best-practices that don’t meet the high standard we should hold ourselves to.
The committee plans to release a blueprint to address these and other challenges to our system. As legislators consider a long list of critical issues this session, I hope the forthcoming recommendations will receive the consideration that reflects their vital importance. Our state can take steps to lead again, making gains to protect public safety, advance limited government and further the urgent goals of redeeming human capital and restoring freedom and liberty to our community.
Mr. DeMint represented South Carolina in the U.S. Senate from 2005 to 2013; contact him at JDeMint@conservativepatnership.org.