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Marking time at the State House

IN THE LAST 15 minutes of the 2008 session of the S.C. General Assembly, there were three things going on in the House chamber: The speaker and clerks and others up on the podium were fussing about finishing important paperwork of some sort. All of the other House members were wandering about on the floor, socializing, saying goodbye, slapping backs, shaking hands, sharing stories and so forth.

All, that is, but two members, Reps. Chris Hart and Walt McLeod. Mr. Hart was at the lectern. Mr. McLeod was at his desk. Their microphoned voices rose indistinctly above the buzz of their milling, meandering colleagues. A sample of their vaudevillian dialogue:

Rep. McLEOD: Is it correct to say that, at the present time, our state prison system is operating at a deficit?

Rep. HART: That’s absolutely correct, and I’m glad you mentioned that, Mr. McLeod...

They were discussing a two-part proposal made by Attorney General Henry McMaster earlier in the session. He had proposed to do away with what’s left of parole in our state prisons, while simultaneously creating a new “middle court” that would punish first-time, nonviolent wrongdoers in ways other than sending them to prison.

What Messrs. McLeod and Hart were teaming up to say — between Mr. McLeod’s friendly, leading questions and Mr. Hart’s “thank you for that good question” answers — was that it would be crazy to do the former without first doing the latter. (Their language was more polite; I’m just cutting to the chase.)

That’s because, as Mr. Hart explained, South Carolina already did away with parole for violent offenders long ago. And since then, we’ve been jamming more and more prisoners (violent and nonviolent) into our prisons, while cutting the budget of the Corrections Department year after year. We now spend less per prisoner than any other state in the union, while locking up more of our population than most. We lock up more prisoners with fewer guards, and make basically no effort to rehabilitate them. So our prisons are increasingly dangerous places — for the guards, for the prisoners and for those of us on the outside who depend on the worst criminals staying inside.

Some of you will say, Oh, isn’t that just like a couple of liberal Democrats, prattling on about mollycoddling prisoners. If you say that, you’re not paying attention.

One of Gov. Mark Sanford’s biggest gripes about the budget the Legislature just passed — and remember, this is Mark Sanford, the most fanatical enemy of “growing government” ever to enter the State House — was that it does not spend enough to run our prisons safely and responsibly.

He is guided in this by his hyper-conservative director of Corrections, Jon Ozmint. (I once toured a prison with Mr. Ozmint, a former prosecutor. He kept striking up chats with the prisoners. He’d ask, “Who sent you here?” The prisoner would name a judge. Mr. Ozmint would say, “Oh, Judge So-and-So! He’s a really good judge! He’s really fair, isn’t he?” The prisoner would gape at Mr. Ozmint as though he were a Martian.) Mr. Ozmint, after years of refusing to complain on the record, wrote an op-ed piece this year to beg lawmakers not to abolish parole, suggesting that if they did, he and his shrunken staff would not be able to keep the lid on the pressure-cooker.

Everybody who is familiar with these facts knows these things. Henry McMaster knows these things. So why did he propose something that flew in the face of the facts (abolishing parole), at the same time as proposing something that made perfect sense in light of the same facts (alternative sentencing for nonviolent offenders, to reserve prison space for the worst criminals)?

Because he is a political realist. He knows the South Carolina General Assembly. “No parole” was the tooth-rotting sweetener to help the alternative-sentencing medicine go down.

The good news here is that the Legislature didn’t abolish parole this year. The bad news is that it didn’t provide for alternative sentencing, either. What it did, in the end, was neglect the whole problem as usual, sending more people behind bars while we pay less and less to keep them there.

It was the same approach lawmakers took to early-childhood education; our crumbling, unsafe roads; our emergency rooms crammed with mental patients; our struggling rural schools — leave it all to fester.

What did lawmakers do this year besides throw up their hands over the lack of money, after having cut taxes by about a billion dollars over the last few sessions? Well, they passed an “immigration reform” bill that will accomplish two things: force businesses to do a lot of paperwork, and enable lawmakers to tell the voters in this election year that they had “done something” about illegal immigration. And boy did they spend a lot of time and energy on that.

Back to Mr. Hart and Mr. McLeod. If the whole abolish parole/alternative sentencing thing was already dead for the year, why were they going on so earnestly? Well, they’re just that way; they’re very earnest guys. It was pointless, really — perhaps even a bit priggish of them. They knew they were just marking time and so did everybody else, so you can’t blame anybody for ignoring them. It was just political theater; they were actors in a play with a “what if?” plot, as in, “What if lawmakers realistically and intelligently engaged the actual challenges facing their state?”

Only an easily distracted fool who didn’t have the slightest idea what was going on would have paid attention to them at all.

See shaky video of what I described above, and more, at thestate.com/bradsblog/.

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