Sentencing reform pays dividends
Crime's costs aren't confined to the toll imposed on its victims. The government's obligation to enhance public safety by incarcerating - and presumably rehabilitating - criminals requires taxpayer money.
But common-sense changes in sentencing policies have been reducing that financial burden across much of the nation in recent years - including here in South Carolina.
The state Sentencing Oversight Committee has issued a new report documenting a 2.8 percent decline in South Carolina's prison population from 2012 to 2013 - with an accompanying reduction of $5.2 million in corrections costs.
And those savings appear to have been achieved without increasing the risk of violent crime.
That shouldn't come as surprise. The 2010 sentencing reform legislation passed by the General Assembly and signed by then-Gov. Mark Sanford didn't ease the penalties for violent crime. Instead, it strengthened them.
Yet the law also established a system of alternative - non-prison - sentences for many non-violent offenses.
As the committee's report pointed out, while more than half of the prison inmates in our state were non-violent offenders in 2002, this year that level is only 34 percent.
The steep downward shift represents a prudent recognition that while those who commit non-violent crimes warrant legal punishment, they shouldn't comprise a majority of the prisoners in our state's corrections system.
The scourge of illegal drugs persists as a serious societal concern warranting major law-enforcement attention.
However, the Drug War's general futility demanded a practical reassessment of long-term sentences for relatively minor players in the dope trade. And that realization has spread widely across political and ideological lines over the last decade.
As Gov. Sanford said when he signed the sentencing reform bill 3˝ years ago: "It's designed not only to make our corrections process even more lean and effective and thereby save taxpayers millions, but also to reduce overall crime and consequently improve the quality of life we enjoy as South Carolinians."
But to sustain such benefits, some of the money the law has saved should go to the Department of Probation, Pardon and Parole Services. After all, the decrease in the state's prison population has inevitably been accompanied by an increase in that agency's workload - 8 percent since the reform law went into effect.
State lawmakers and Gov. Nikki Haley should keep that added burden in mind when crafting budget proposals during the next legislative session, which begins next month.
And the proven success of sentencing reform laws here and throughout the land should inspire the consideration of more innovative - and when reasonable, non-incarceration - solutions to the crime problem.