Chief justice assails system

Chief Justice Jean Toal says the state prison sentencing system is 'a scandal.'

South Carolina's sentencing system is "a scandal" that has created a "permanent criminal underclass" supported with state money, Chief Justice Jean Toal said Friday.

"This system is broken, and it's not fair to anyone," the state Supreme Court chief told members of the South Carolina Sentencing Reform Commission during a working retreat at downtown Charleston's Doubletree Hotel.

The commission was set up to recommend ways to modernize and improve a system that Toal characterized as "hodgepodge, cobbled together over time, nonsensical." She said the state is burdened "with an antiquated system of sentencing" that needs to be "completely revamped."

State Sen. Gerald Malloy, chairman of the commission, said the panel hopes to complete its work by November so reform legislation can be filed for the Legislature next year.

Malloy, a Democrat from Hartsville, said the state's current anemic financial condition might help sentencing reform get through the Legislature because he expects it will save money that otherwise would be spent on housing prisoners.

The state spends about $14,000 a year for each criminal behind bars. Many sentencing-reform proposals involve alternatives to prison, especially for nonviolent criminals.

At any given time, Malloy said, half of the state's 24,000 prison inmates are in for nonviolent crimes, such as shoplifting and driving without a permit. Not locking them in prison could save tens of millions of dollars, he said.

"We have to create a balance to incarcerate violent offenders and to have cost-saving means for the nonviolent, but allow them to pay their debt" to society, Malloy said.

Last year, the state's two top lawmakers, Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell and House Speaker Bobby Harrell, called for sentencing reform and improvements to the state's system of probation and parole after The Post and Courier ran a series called "Law and Disorder."

The series revealed that many citizens are killed, raped or robbed by criminals freed on probation or parole. The story showed that the state doesn't have enough probation officers to adequately oversee criminals released on probation or parole.

Any effort at sentencing reform that calls for improved alternatives to prison for many criminals would require a substantially beefed up probation system, experts say.

Reach Doug Pardue at dpardue@postandcourier.com or 937-5558 and Glenn Smith at gsmith@postandcourier.com or 937-5556.