Stop punishing taxpayers for criminals' actions

OVER THE PAST quarter century, South Carolina's prison population has skyrocketed, from 9,000 to 25,000 inmates, and the cost to taxpayers has gone up even faster - from $64 million to $394 million.

Worse is how nonsensical much of this expensive warehousing is: Forty-nine percent of inmates are in prison for non-violent crimes. More than four in 10 committed crimes so minor that the sentences are less than 18 months. One in six people we're housing, feeding and providing with medical care are in for "non-criminal (technical) violations" of parole.

And what have we gotten for all that? According to a committee of state legislators, judges and the head of the prison system, precious little.

South Carolina isn't safer. People aren't leaving prison less likely to commit crimes. In fact, the increased load on the system has made it impossible for us to keep some people in prison as long as they need to be, or to watch them as closely as we need to once they're released. And every penny we throw at prisons is a penny we can't invest in education and economic development and health and other efforts that will make people less likely to commit crimes to begin with.

South Carolina's prison policy is a colossal failure.

This isn't news, of course, but the report issued Tuesday after more than a year of work by the state's Sentencing Reform Commission encapsulates the problem and presents a reasonable way forward. The recommendations represent, as Attorney General Henry McMaster put it in the closest thing we've heard to criticism, only "a small step forward" - but a step forward nonetheless. If implemented in full, the commission says, its 24 recommendations could cut prison operating costs by $92 million over the next five years - which is even more impressive when you realize that otherwise those costs would go up by $141 million - and eliminate the need to spend $317 million building new prisons to house the extra 3,200 people we will be holding by the end of that period.

All the recommendations center around this rather obvious but quite obviously ignored policy prescription: "Prison space should be reserved for violent criminals and those with violent tendencies."

The panel proposes that we base our prison policy on strategies that have been proven to reduce crime - "evidence-based practices," they're called - rather than emotion. We wish that weren't a novel idea, but it is.

Using evidence-based practices means making sure no one goes directly from "in prison" to "completely free," but instead goes through a period of supervised release to ease the make-or-break transition to freedom. It means giving judges, the parole board and probation officers information that will help them identify which individuals are likely to commit more crimes, and what they can do to reduce that likelihood. It means giving those same people more flexibility to tailor sentences effectively - for instance, quick ways to yank probationers back into line when they commit those technical violations, rather than just winking or hauling them back to prison, and a program to let people reduce their time on probation through good behavior.

And of course it means giving the most serious offenders serious time, while not putting most non-violent offenders in prison to begin with, but instead fining them, sentencing them to community service and home detention and putting them in tightly supervised programs where they have to complete drug treatment and job training and whatever else officials determine will make them less likely to break the law again.

It would be difficult enough to maintain our lock-everybody-up policy even if it worked. The fact that it doesn't work makes it our state's most obscene waste of money. For the first time in our memory, legislators have a clear road map to eliminate that waste of money and lives. They must follow it.