A pair of recent reports show South Carolina criminal justice reform efforts, both statewide and in Charleston County, are reducing the number of people behind bars.
On Tuesday, the S.C. Sentencing Reform Oversight Committee — made up of state senators, representatives and a handful of other officials — received a report from Pew Charitable Trusts that showed the state's imprisonment rate fell from 11th in the nation to 19th from 2010 through 2015.
In Charleston County, the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, which is working to reduce the jail population at the Al Cannon Detention Center, among other efforts, reported a 7 percent drop in inmates since 2016.
State Sen. Gerald Malloy, who chairs the oversight committee, said that while the preliminary report's findings are promising, it is merely a first step and that further study will be needed in the coming months.
"We are going to where the data leads us," said Malloy, a Darlington Democrat.
At the state level, prison population reduction efforts stem from the Omnibus Crime Reduction and Sentencing Reform Act in 2010, which was aimed at reducing recidivism — when a convicted criminal reoffends — and increasing public safety, among other goals.
Also highlighted in the Pew report were a 14 percent drop in the prison population, a 16 percent drop in the overall crime rate and a 10 percent decline in recidivism. A report released in June by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, a nonpartisan public policy group, also highlighted positive changes in the S.C. prison system.
S.C. Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling, who sits on the committee as a governor's appointee, called the numbers promising.
"The department has seen several positive trends since we began our work on the Sentencing Reform Oversight Committee, including successfully lowering inmate recidivism rates, the closing of six prisons due to falling inmate numbers, and nearly a half a billion dollars of cost deferment," Stirling said in a statement.
Residents, however, shouldn't confuse falling prison population numbers with being "soft on crime," he said.
The Pew report also highlighted a number of areas for deeper study: 78 percent of prisoners were serving time for nonviolent offenses, one in four admissions were for prisoners who violated the terms of their supervised release and the average length of stay in state prison went up by 29 percent since 2010.
Stirling said he expects the number of admissions from supervised release revocations to drop as the S.C. Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services implements new programs aimed at keeping offenders from going back to prison.
In the coming months, the committee will further study issues related to sentencing, what happens while prisoners are behind bars and what happens when they are released, Malloy said.
Members hope to put out a full report in December and be ready to draft legislation proposing any needed policy changes in 2018, he said.
In Charleston County, a three-year initiative by the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council highlighted efforts to reduce the local jail population through a variety of strategies like utilizing a newly opened mental health center and so-called "cite and release" options when appropriate.
As of June, Charleston County's average daily jail population was 7 percent lower than it was at the start of the council's three-year plan in May 2016, the report released late last month said. Under the plan, officials hope to lower the jail population by 25 percent by April 2019.
Charleston County Assistant Sheriff Mitch Lucas, who chairs the council, said new resources and tools for law enforcement like the newly reopened Tri-County Crisis Stabilization Center and use of so-called "cite and release" strategies for certain lower-level nonviolent offences, like simple possession of marijuana, will help move criminal justice forward in the area.
"When people come into contact with law enforcement, they now have more tools to keep the public safe," Lucas said. "The system is going to be more equitable and efficient than it's been."