By Taylor Weaver
Overcrowding in South Carolina’s prisons over the last decade and the state’s response to that crisis is a success story that requires closer examination.
From 1983 to 2009 South Carolina’s inmate population increased over 270%, which resulted in a 500% increase in costs. The key element in South Carolina’s criminal justice system responsible for these increases: overcriminalization. Overcriminalization is the act of imposing sentences on offenders that are unfairly disproportionate to the crime they committed.
This led the SC General Assembly to establish the Sentencing Reform Commission (SRC) to review current sentencing practices and develop policy options to achieve the desired decrease in prison population, spending, and recidivism rate while also increasing public safety. The SRC’s findings led to the passing of the Omnibus Crime Reduction and Sentencing Reform Act of 2010.
This act had four primary purposes: to ensure there is sufficient prison space for high-risk, violent offenders, to require adequate supervision for offenders leaving prison, to provide incentives for offenders to stay crime and drug free, and to “get smart on crime”: reduce recidivism, provide fair and effective sentencing options, employ evidence-based practices, and improve public safety.
These four goals have been largely achieved, primarily through sentencing reduction but also with probation and parole programs. The introduction of early court diversion programs, compliance credits, and Second Chance Programs have also contributed greatly to the success of the Act.
The passage of this bill has led to reduced incarceration among nonviolent offenders, increased incarceration for violent offenders, increased public safety, and reduced spending. It has also resulted in close to $500 billion in savings and the closing of seven prisons over the last seven years. The recidivism rate has decreased 10%, the overall prison population has fallen 14%, and the violent and property crime rate is down 16%.
In the session of the General Assembly that just ended (May 2018), Representatives Mike Pitts, Murrell Smith, Todd Rutherford, Chris Murphy, Greg Delleney, David Weeks, Peter McCoy, and Terry Alexander worked to build on this success by crafting a new sentencing reform bill, H.5155. The bill proposed to create a Drug Court Program for adults and juveniles charged with nonviolent offenses.
It would also lessen the time a long-serving inmate must spend behind bars for infractions like drug charges and nonviolent crimes. Time served before automatic release would drop to 65% instead of 85% of the sentence. There would also be more credit days for good behavior, work, and education. This bill was discharged from the Judiciary Committee and brought to the House floor very late in the session, but that body was not ready to debate it, and H.5155 was sent back to the Judiciary Committee where it died with the end of the legislative session. But, knowing significant change takes a session or two, sponsors are optimistic about prospects for the new session coming in 2019.
As they return to finish the state budget this week, the General Assembly must also decide whether or not to override the Governor’s veto of H.3209, a bill that would allow non-violent past offenders who have not re-offended to clean up their criminal records and allow them a smoother transition back into the job market.
Overall, South Carolina has made significant progress on overcriminalization and criminal justice reform. After years of existing as an incarceration society, South Carolina can finally be classified as a rehabilitative society.
But as H.5155 and H. 3209 show, there is more that can be done to reduce state spending on incarceration and restore former prisoners to productive citizenship. With a new round of reforms, South Carolina has an opportunity to continue to lead the nation in effective criminal justice reform.
Taylor Weaver, of Lynchburg, Virginia, is a student at the University of South Carolina and served as an intern at Palmetto Promise Institute during Spring, 2018.