COLUMBIA -- Victims advocates want to make sure a plan to consolidate probation and parole services under the state Department of Corrections doesn't put dollars and cents over justice.
A panel of legislators and state officials will begin deliberations Wednesday on a proposal to consolidate the two state agencies, but S.C. Crime Victims Council Director Laura Hudson said she is not sure that's a good idea. South Carolina's probation and parole system is already overwhelmed and underfunded.
"My concerns are we'd be making decisions about public safety based on money and what we can afford instead of what's best for the community and the safety of our community," Hudson said Monday.
The study committee is charged with weighing the issue and developing a consolidation plan for the Legislature to consider after it reconvenes in January. The idea was brought to the forefront as the state faces its fourth-straight year of massive budget cuts.
Lawmakers are expected to have to cut $1 billion more from the $5 billion budget in the next fiscal year. State revenue has already been drained by more than $2 billion since the recession hit in December 2007.
Sen. Mike Fair, a Greenville Republican and chairman of the Senate's Corrections and Penology Committee, said consolidation is worth consideration. He first floated the idea earlier this year in a bill that failed to pass the Legislature.
"If we can save money, let's take a look at it and get some experts talking to us," Fair said.
South Carolina is one of only about 10 states that separates probation and parole services from the Department of Corrections, said Ben Fox, communications director for Gov. Mark Sanford. Fox said the governor supports the consolidation and that he has recommended it for years.
"Not only would it produce cost savings, given a better coordination of resources, information, and personnel, but it would also provide a single point of contact for victims of crime," Fox said.
Jon Ozmint, director of the Corrections Department, said he supports the proposal to consolidate.
He also highlighted the potential for long-term savings. Ozmint said the two agencies could combine human resources, technology, maintenance, accounting and legal staffs to free up dollars that could be pumped back into law enforcement functions.
But more than the other reasons, Ozmint said consolidation would allow a more seamless transition for inmates as they come into prison and move back into the community.
And like the governor, Ozmint said he thinks consolidation will strengthen the ability for victims to receive the information and resources they require.
Any consolidation plan would maintain the autonomy of the Board of Paroles and Pardons to ensure its integrity is not compromised, Ozmint and Fair said.
The Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services had no comment on the proposed consolidation, said Pete O'Boyle, the agency's director of public information.
The Post and Courier highlighted difficulties in the justice system in a 2008 series called "Law and Disorder." The series revealed how criminals free on probation or parole kill, rob and rape when released into a system ill-equipped to maintain control. Some agents juggle more than 170 cases each and lack cell phones, cars and other resources to do their jobs. The case loads have only gotten worse since that report.
Reach Yvonne Wenger at 803-926-7855 or firstname.lastname@example.org.