COLUMBIA — The budget proposal headed for debate by the South Carolina House includes roughly $50 million to boost state law enforcement and better secure prisons.
The House Ways and Means spending plan for 2013-14 calls for hiring 25 agents to supervise parolees, 10 natural resource officers and 15 people at the State Law Enforcement Division. It would also add 18 highway troopers through a personnel shift.
Rep. Mike Pitts, chairman of the law enforcement subcommittee, said public safety agencies need to be restored following recession-era budget cuts. His subcommittee’s plan would represent the second consecutive year of employee increases. Still, it wouldn’t return officers’ ranks to 2008 levels.
“We’re trying to play catch up” on a primary function of state government, said Pitts, R-Laurens.
The plan would spend $732 million from state taxes on law enforcement and courts, up from $684 million this fiscal year.
Officer safety issues in prisons stem from years of neglect, due to legislators not wanting to appear to show a soft side for inmates. Two hostage situations last year — within three months — at maximum-security Lee Correctional changed some minds. Gov. Nikki Haley recognized Warden Mike McCall during her State of the State address as an unsung hero of state government.
“As a legislator, it was always my belief that giving money to corrections was giving money to criminals, and that there were better, more noble places our tax dollars should go,” the Republican governor said in her January speech. “Warden McCall will tell you that if we give money to his facility, it’s not going to the prisoners; it’s going to the guards. And that for them, it’s a matter of life or death.”
The Ways and Means budget plan for law enforcement closely follows Haley’s executive budget. That includes a 3 percent pay raise for guards in maximum-security prisons — the only employee raises mandated in the spending plan.
The additional $13 million going to Corrections would also build two watch towers at Lee Correctional, buy cameras and metal detectors at prisons statewide, pave perimeter roads around prisons, boost mental health services, replace officers’ weapons and upgrade decades-old kitchen equipment.
“Safety of the officers can be relative to other things, like being served a meal on time,” said Pitts, a retired Greenville Police officer.
“Prison guards are the least respected in law enforcement,” Pitts added. “They’re out of sight, out of mind, and they shouldn’t be because, in my opinion, they may have the most dangerous job in law enforcement.”
It’s a job made more dangerous by the state’s sentencing reform law of 2010, which is reducing the number of nonviolent offenders in prison.
The law, which applied to arrests beginning in June 2010, was designed to put fewer people in prison on minor offenses, and instead help them turn their lives around through improved oversight and training while on parole.
It’s proving successful, with Corrections closing 2 ½ prisons in the last year, as opposed to calling for more prisons due to overcrowding. But the changes have concentrated behind the wires what Pitts calls “the worst of the worst” inmates, at a time when nearly 550 guard jobs are vacant.
Currently, about 3,600 officers guard inmates in 26 prisons, down from a high of 4,325 officers in 1998, said Corrections spokesman Clark Newsom.
Lawmakers hope the 3 percent pay raise provides an incentive for those hard-to-fill jobs.
Another result of the sentencing reform law is that South Carolina parole agents have one of the highest caseloads in the country. The per-agent case load has swollen to 93 parolees, up from 59 in 2001.
High caseloads mean parolees are more likely to commit offenses again, due to a lack of direct supervision, Pitts said.
“Not everybody needs to be stuck behind the wire at a cost to the taxpayers of $17,000 a year, but we can’t overcrowd PPP’s case load to a point where you create a jeopardy situation for the public,” he said.
The budget plan’s 25 additional agents — bringing the total to 375 — largely just keeps up with projected increases in parolees. Without those extra officers, caseloads would grow to 99, according to the Department of Probation, Pardon and Parole Services.