Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: Report offers smart-on-crime option to tough-but-dumb-on crime

AT FIRST glance, the "South Carolina Sentencing Reform Commission Report to the General Assembly" seems like the "duh" report of the decade. The long-awaited report calls for relying more heavily on alternatives to prison for non-violent offenders and longer sentences for the most dangerous criminals.

As one person put it on a newspaper discussion site: "And how long did it take to come up with these recommendations? 24 hours would have sufficed."

But the report is useful - and potentially helpful (dum spiro spero, dum spiro spero, dum spiro spero ...) - for two reasons:

1. It gives legislators cover to make smart changes that will reduce the number of people we lock up, by paring those changes with some smart tougher-on-crime measures so they won't be accused of being weak-kneed. In that sense, it borrows from the approach Attorney General Henry McMaster has been peddling with his proposal to combine a muscular alternative-sentence program with the abolition of parole.

2. It focuses on policies that have been proven to work elsewhere to actually reduce crime, and identifies several policies that look tough but that are in fact making it more likely that people will commit new crimes, and it proposes to fix them. That's where it differs from Mr. McMaster's approach.

The thrust of the report is that we ought to send the really bad guys to prison, and keep them there a long time, we ought to use less-expensive methods of punishment for people who don't pose a danger to society, and we ought to invest in rehabilitating every criminal who is not going to spend the rest of his life in prison.

Sounds simple enough, but we've never managed to make our laws work that way in South Carolina. Because every time anything bad happens to anyone, there's a lawmaker ready to pass a law creating a new crime that targets the specifics of that incident, or increasing the penalties for a crime that's already on the books. And nobody wants to vote against it, for fear of being labeled a bleeding-heart criminal-coddler in the next election.

That's why we send white-collar criminals to prison instead of stripping them of nearly all of their possessions - not to protect society from their next crime, but to protect politicians from voters out for blood.

It's why, to cite a minor area of the report, we have separate crimes of assault and battery against school personnel and assault and battery upon a correctional facility employee and assault and battery upon an emergency medical service provider, firefighter or home healthcare worker - all with slightly different penalties - instead of just prosecuting all those crimes under our catch-all "assault and battery" charge. The piecemeal approach we take to criminal law makes our tax policy look efficient and organized by comparison.

To be clear, this isn't a bleeding heart report. You won't find any sympathy here for criminals. What you'll find is sympathy for the taxpayers, who are spending tens of millions of dollars a year and getting nothing in return. You'll find sympathy for South Carolinians who are victimized by people who were released from prison more likely to commit crime than when they went in or who weren't watched appropriately while on probation because we're spending so much on prisons that we can't afford to hire enough people to watch them.

The panel found as many places where our penalties need to be toughened as where they need to be relaxed, and still the lock-em-all-up Republicans and the criminal-rights Democrats - and the more reasonable Democrats and Republicans in between - agreed unanimously to recommend changing them: reduce sentences for most drug crimes, but add extra prison time for repeat offenders of "most serious crimes"; prohibit people convicted of violent crimes from owning a gun, but limit the use of "disturbing schools" charges to people who aren't students at the school. And on and on.

Most significantly, the panel identified polices that work at cross-purposes with our intended goal of creating a safer state.

We know, based on the experiences of other states, that prisoners sent to work-release before their release are much less likely to get into trouble again, but we make that option available to precious few inmates.

We know that prisoners who are released directly into society, without parole or other supervised periods, are far more likely to commit crimes than those who aren't. But our parole board turns down eight out of nine inmates who come before it, which means they "max out" - serve their entire terms and are released without supervision. In some cases, our laws encourage inmates not even to apply for parole, because they'll get out sooner without it - and they won't have to be accountable to a parole agent.

We know that supervision and treatment in the community are "fundamental to changing criminal behavior and guiding inmates through the process of becoming productive, tax-paying citizens," but in our state "there exists no formal network of community based alternatives, and there are limited opportunities for diversion from criminal prosecution."

We know that a job is the best tool against recidivism, yet we release people from prison without even making sure they have a state ID card that many employers demand before they'll consider hiring them.

If there's anything disappointing about the report, it's that it's too timid. It suggests the state study its various alternative sentencing programs and think about which ones work best. Certainly we need to make sure we use programs that work, but we need to implement them, or expand them, not just think about it.