Early release of prisoners discussed
COLUMBIA -- South Carolina will consider opening its prison doors and freeing up to 3,000 inmates before their sentences are finished as a way to save money during a crippling economic time.
Read the newspaper's series Law and Disorder, a look at South Carolina's broken probation and parole system.
States from Connecticut to California have adopted or are mulling similar measures to keep budgets afloat, but critics warn that these initiatives could be destined to fail if not accompanied by adequate support and supervision.
The state's lead budget writer, Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, raised the idea Tuesday at the Budget and Control Board before the panel voted 5-0 to let the Department of Corrections spend $30 million beyond its budget to keep prisons operating.
Leatherman said Corrections Director Jon Ozmint has the immediate authority to release prisoners early. Ozmint disputes that interpretation.
While Gov. Mark Sanford pledged to sit down with Ozmint and Leatherman to discuss the matter, some law enforcement officials made it clear that they are firmly opposed to the plan.
North Charleston Police Chief Jon Zumalt called the proposal "bad news for communities across the state." Deep cuts to the state Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services already have led to very limited oversight of offenders who often are released to the community with no job, no work skills and a high likelihood of committing new crimes, he said.
"To simply release prisoners from an overcrowded prison system is myopic and places the personal safety of all residents in North Charleston and all of South Carolina at significant risk," Zumalt said.
"We have nearly 2,000 people in our city right now on probation or parole. This would probably send several thousand more to our community, and it would overwhelm us."
Leatherman said at this point he does not have information about what types of prisoners could be released early, how many or how quickly that could happen.
Ozmint said the Corrections Department would have to close three institutions, fire 700 employees and release 3,000 inmates to save $30 million, the amount of the latest deficit. The early releases could be structured according to an inmate's crime or the time left in his sentence.
The agency's budget is $399.4 million for the current budget year. The state's budget for next year rounds out at about $5.2 billion, more than $2 billion less than the spending plan three years ago.
Ozmint said there is no room for more budget cuts. South Carolina prisons run for less money than any others in the nation, he said. The Corrections Department ran a $45.5 million deficit last year and a $3.9 million deficit in 2007-08.
Meanwhile, the prison population has topped 24,000, the highest ever. The system is built for 18,000 offenders.
Zumalt said the state needs to look at the prison overcrowding issue in context with an overall restructuring of the criminal justice system. He said he supports efforts to keep repeat, violent criminals behind bars while finding programs that help nonviolent offenders change their behaviors and learn job skills.
Sanford, a two-term Republican, also thinks Leatherman's suggestion calls for a comprehensive solution, such as the one put forward this month by the state Sentencing Reform Commission.
The report recommends a series of legislative initiatives that would keep prison beds open for the most violent criminals and divert nonviolent offenders while saving $92 million in corrections costs and preventing the need for the state to build a $317 million prison.
The governor said he is concerned about preserving the separate constitutional powers vested in the judicial, legislative and executive branches. The state also should weigh the input from victims, he said.
Laura Hudson, executive director of the South Carolina Crime Victims Council, said the state should shack prisoners up in tents with razor wire before it considers setting them free until they have served the time they were sentenced to by a judge.
"I think we should just find cheaper ways to incarcerate them," Hudson said. "When you go into a courtroom and turn your rights as a person over to the court, you expect some modicum of justice."
Ozmint said he could support releasing some nonviolent offenders, but he has many concerns about early releases.
"We're not sure that that number of releases can be done safely," Ozmint said. The issue could be headed for the state attorney general, Ozmint said.
Mark Plowden, communications director for Attorney General Henry McMaster, said McMaster's office does not agree that state law allows the release of prisoners because of a lack of money.
"Prison sentences are valid orders of the court and must be enforced," Plowden said in a statement. "When a court order places a person in prison, that order must be carried out, and certainly may not be ignored or overruled by budgetary interests."
Richard Jerome, project manager at the Public Safety Performance Project for the Pew Center for the States, said the early release of prisoners is a catch phrase that covers a broad range of actions by different states.
More than 30 states have programs that allow prisoners to earn time off their sentences for good behaviors, a policy already in effect in South Carolina, he said. Some states also allow early release for the completion of substance-abuse treatment or classes to earn diplomas.
"No states would say, 'We're releasing prisons because we can't afford it,' " Jerome said.
Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen said the state would need to be very cautious in determining who would be eligible for early release. Even petty thieves can wreak havoc on a community if the proper programs and supervision are not in place to keep them on the straight and narrow, he said.
"The thing people have to consider is that while this might be some big savings for the state and the prison system, what kind of deficit in terms of victims and community impact will you have to recover from if you make the wrong decision," Mullen said.