A seven-year effort to overhaul South Carolina's criminal justice system is yielding promising results.
A Council of State Governments Justice Center report released Thursday highlighted reform efforts to reduce recidivism — defined as when a criminal re-offends — in seven states: Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas.
The nonprofit, nonpartisan group works with states to help shape public policy in areas ranging from elections to public safety.
In South Carolina, the most dramatic change was a 46 percent drop in parole or probation revocations for technical violations. They include areas such as missing a scheduled appointment with an officer or failing a drug test, recorded between 2010 and 2015, according to the report.
S.C. Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling said initiatives like the Second Chance Program, a collaboration between prison officials and the state's Department of Employment and Workforce, are helping to drive positive changes.
"I think from a public safety standpoint, we’re seeing the crime rate go down," Stirling said. "We’re seeing less people come to prison and less people return to prison. If they’re working, we think they’re less likely to go out and commit crime."
The program was launched at Manning Correctional Institution. A similar operation has started at Graham Correctional Institution, which houses women. Both facilities house lower-level prisoners. Officials hope to expand to higher-security facilities like Lee Correctional.
Between 80 and 85 percent of inmates will eventually re-enter society, Stirling said. Equipping them with the tools they needs to land a job is a key to reducing the revolving door. Of the 783 people that went through Second Chance at Manning, 75 percent got jobs.
"We’re trying to focus on the needs of the business community to focus on the needs of the workforce," he said. "It teaches these folks that they can go out and get jobs. I hope we continue with the programs to prepare people to go back into society. I don’t think anybody in the state would say we shouldn’t be doing this. We want them to have a future and have hope ... so they don’t return to a life of crime.”
This progress was jump-started after state legislators passed the Omnibus Crime Reduction and Sentencing Reform Act in 2010.
State officials have closed six prisons since that time and in May, the prison population as a whole fell below 20,000 from its average of 20,500, Stirling said.
The promising statistics did not end with parole and probation revocations.
The Council of State Governments report highlighted a 21 percent drop in the three-year reincarceration rate between 2004 and 2013 for South Carolina. Researchers noted a 25 percent drop in reincarceration within three years for a person starting parole or probation.
In addition, the study cited FBI statistics showing a 16 percent drop in violent crime for South Carolina as a whole between 2010 and 2015.
Marshall Clement, director of state initiatives for the nonprofit's Justice Center, called the progress "incredibly impressive."
"Ten years ago, we were talking about specific programs that reduced recidivism," Clement said. "Today, we're talking about entire states."
Although data past 2015 was not available for the study, he expects the reform efforts in South Carolina are continuing to drive reductions.
For Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen, the report's findings are promising but only form one part of the overall crime picture.
The public needs to think about how to address crime and public safety from all angles, Mullen said.
There's been an uptick in violent crime in Charleston over the past couple of years and although a multitude of factors could be contributing to the increase, he's concerned that a new generation is being swept up into the criminal justice system.
If communities and public officials work to improve areas like access to education, employment, and to bolster health and wellness, that could keep many people from feeling like they have to get involved with criminal activity in the first place, he said.
"I think that if you can keep people from committing crimes and you help them to learn how it impacts their communities, families ... then maybe we can stop what seems like this revolving cycle," Mullen said.