COLUMBIA — The plan was to save the state millions of dollars while reducing the number of people serving decades behind bars and preventing another deadly episode in South Carolina's prisons. 

Several state lawmakers began the year with plans to curb violence in the state Department of Corrections by changing the way some criminals are sentenced and giving other inmates a chance to earn a shorter stay. 

The reform measures were supposed to be the crux of South Carolina's response to one of the country's deadliest prison uprisings in decades. 

It's been a year since seven inmates were killed during a riot at the Lee Correctional Institute near Bishopville, but the South Carolina Legislature has been slow in reacting.

Lawmakers in both the House and Senate held extensive hearings to debate the criminal justice bill, which aimed to reduce the state's inmate population. Those proposals, however, have yet to pass either body after advocates of crime victims pushed back. 

That means no such bill will become law this year. 

In the meantime, lawmakers have tentatively agreed to spend $10 million to upgrade technology in the state's antiquated prisons. That money will pay for electronic locking systems, such as those being installed at the prison wing in Lee County where inmates took control last year. 

The improvements are undoubtedly needed in prisons where correctional officers still use keys to unlock doors. 

But the funding will do little to change a more basic problem: There's still not enough correctional officers to properly manage the nearly 19,000 people currently imprisoned in South Carolina. 

“Our ratio of inmates to guards is way out of whack, and you’ve seen what happened at Lee Correctional," said Rep. Chris Murphy, a Dorchester County Republican who has led the House's push on sentencing reform. 

Chasing more staff

The Department of Corrections has increased advertising for its job openings. It extended more overtime pay to the state employees who staff South Carolina's 21 prisons. And it persuaded the Legislature to increase the average salary for correctional officers by roughly 20 percent over the past six years. 

But it still can't hire enough correctional officers to properly man the catwalks, gates and prison yards throughout the state.

A report commissioned by the state agency early last year reviewed staffing levels at 13 state institutions. It found slightly more than 2,000 correctional officers on duty at those facilities at the time, but it said more like 4,000 officers were needed to meet industry standards and ensure the safety of both inmates and officers.

Those numbers haven't improved, and the jobs haven't become any less dangerous.

According to the Department of Corrections, the state has about 39 fewer correctional officers than it had this time last year. The number of inmates has dropped by several hundred too, but observers still worry it's not enough. 

"The state owes a duty of care to these individuals," said Shirene Hansotia, an attorney who works on criminal justice reform. "They can't hire enough security positions to manage this in a safe way. When you have too few guards, bad things happen." 

The state's unemployment rate of 3.2 percent also makes it difficult to recruit and retain officers, said Bryan Stirling, the state's prison director. 

That's why lawmakers looked to attack the problem from the opposite direction. While the state may struggle to attract correctional officers, it can control how many inmates are put in prison. 

The drive for fewer inmates

The strategies for reducing the state's prison population vary.

House lawmakers want to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for some crimes, giving judges more discretion in deciding how long people are imprisoned.

They are also weighing whether to increase the amount of cocaine, meth or other drugs that someone would need to be carrying in order to charge them with trafficking.

The Senate, meanwhile, is focused on whether to allow people facing decade-long sentences without parole to reduce their time in prison. Its bill would affect inmates charged with drug-related crimes and more serious violations like assault, attempted murder and manslaughter.

The inmates would need to take part in rehabilitation programs and would be ineligible if they commit other crimes in prison. Once released, they would be supervised by the state Department of Probation Pardon and Parole. 

An analysis by the Department of Corrections suggests the House and Senate bills could reduce the state's prison population by several hundred inmates in a few decades. It would also save several million dollars, since the state spends about $21,000 to house an inmate for a year. 

Sen. Karl Allen, D-Greenville, has led the criminal justice reform effort over the past year. He said sentencing reform would help the agency focus on the inmates that pose the greatest danger to society.  

“It makes good economic sense, as well as good humanitarian sense, to put them back into the community when they demonstrate that they have been rehabilitated and when they have completed reentry programs to make them productive members of our community," Allen said. 

“Other states have looked at it and done it, and South Carolina needs to put in on the forefront,” he said.

But that's not how everyone feels. 

Crime victims want to be heard

Laura Hudson, the executive director of the S.C. Crime Victims Council, has pushed back against the sentencing reform efforts all year. 

She has organized crime victims and their family members to speak during the hours-long hearings at the Statehouse. 

In a state where lawmakers worry about being seen as weak on crime, Hudson's views carry weight. She is particularly opposed to changing the sentences for those already in prison. She doesn't believe people should be able to alter the decisions previously handed down in a courtroom. 

“I am very opposed to retroactive treatment on this bill because it perpetrates a lie,” Hudson told state senators earlier this year. 

Murphy, who has spearheaded the House bill, believes the legislation is tailored enough to protect the rights of victims. 

"It’s not really being soft on crime," he said. "It’s being smart on sentencing." 

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Reach Andrew Brown at 843-708-1830 or follow him on Twitter @andy_ed_brown.