The S.C. Department of Corrections' first goal is to protect the public.
The Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon's first goal is to prepare offenders to become productive members of the community.
Both goals could be more readily achieved with a unified system, which would produce better results in cases like that of ex-convict Jimmie Harris Jr. As was reported last Sunday by Andrew Knapp, flaws in the system - and the law - can have very serious consequences.
Officials wonder whether the outcome might have been different if the parole agency were a division of the Corrections Department. A bill in the House submitted by Rep. Bakari Sellers, D-Bamberg, would make that change. Sen. Mike Fair, R-Greenville, who chairs the Corrections and Penology Committee, also has advocated for a merger. Lawmakers need to give the idea careful consideration.
The obvious reason is that a merger would be more efficient and save money - an estimated $5.8 million, money which could be applied to hire more probation agents and prison staff. Both are badly needed.
And as the state works through the merger, Jimmie Harris' story illustrates other problems that need to be addressed. Mr. Harris, who was serving a sentence for shooting a man, was released on probation last spring in accordance with the Truth in Sentencing law.
It seems incredible, as PPP contends, that the law required his release despite the fact that he wasn't outfitted with an electronic monitor. But if that is the case, then the law should be amended for the safety of the public. It's not surprising that Mr. Harris subsequently left home, missed an appointment with his probation agent and was sent to jail.
PPP heard his case and determined that his offenses were not bad enough to warrant revoking his probation. He was released again, even though he reportedly told a probation agent that he didn't want to follow the rules. If that wasn't a factor in deciding whether to release him, it should have been. His unfortunate behavior while in prison should also have raised a red flag. He was cited 32 times for incidents ranging from cutting an inmate's head to possessing contraband cellphones.
If PPP has any reservations about allowing a probationer back on the street, as one would expect in the case of Mr. Harris, it can send the case to a judge. An additional perspective should have been welcomed.
As it is, Mr. Harris is now jailed in Charlotte where he's charged with getting into a shootout with the police. He has also been indicted for shooting and critically wounding a man in Walterboro whom federal authorities describe as a lead witness in a drug conspiracy case.
Remarkably, officials with the state Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon insist they handled things correctly. Sending the case to a judge would have been a waste of court time and money, they contend. PPP officials also say that neither interdepartmental communication nor inadequate supervision was a problem. How about that electronic monitor?
Certainly, it is reasonable to conclude that combining the parole and corrections departments would enhance communications.
And with a broader view, staffing decisions can be improved. At present, agents in Charleston County, where Mr. Harris lived, are responsible for an average of 240 offenders. The state average is 92. The American Probation and Parole Association recommends between 30 high-risk offenders per agent and 120 per agent in the low-risk category.
When Judge William Byars led the reconfiguring of the Department of Juvenile Justice, costs went down and results improved for offenders.
The adult system also needs to be restructured to be more efficient and economical if the public is to be safe and offenders are to be rehabilitated.
Merging the corrections and parole departments would be a good place to start.
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