COLUMBIA -- South Carolina could save as much as $6 million if the state merges its probation and parole services with the prison system, a move that some critics are worried could lead to less oversight of convicted criminals out on the streets.

But to Jon Ozmint, director of the Department of Corrections, consolidating his agency with the Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services makes good practical sense. The majority of other states have merged the two criminal justice functions.

"So much of what we do, we both do," Ozmint told a panel of legislators and officials Wednesday during a discussion of a possible merger. For example, he said, both agencies take DNA samples and collect restitution for victims.

The biggest savings could come over time by combining administrative functions, such as technical support and human services, Ozmint said. Other savings could come as a result of saving money on rent, workers' compensation premiums and training, he said.

Ozmint said he does not support laying off law enforcement officers or staff to come up with savings, given the dramatic budget cuts that state government has imposed over the past several years. Personnel could shrink over time by leaving positions open when people quit or retire, he said.

Peter O'Boyle, director of public information for Probation, Parole and

Pardon Services Department, said the agency supports the evaluation and the chance to find ways to best serve the state.

As for saving as much as $6 million, O'Boyle said that's yet to be determined.

The potential savings will be discussed further as the panel's examination continues, he said.

Rep. Joe Jefferson, D- Pineville, said he is not sold on the idea. First, he said, the probation and parole agency already is operating with a drastically smaller staff than it had just a few years ago because of the budget cuts.

Second, he said, creating efficiencies, such as combining computer staff between the two agencies, wouldn't require a complete merger.

Jefferson said he also bases his position on discussions he has had with Berkeley County law enforcement officials.

"They are already strapped to the bone," Jefferson said. "All of their personnel are working around the clock right now. If they were to merge, that only means there will be more jobs lost, and they have already lost a significant amount of jobs."

Laura Hudson, director of the S.C. Crime Victims Council, was of the same mind as Jefferson. Her biggest concern is that justice for crime victims won't be tied to decisions made by state workers, only by judges and the independent Board of Paroles and Pardons.

Rep. Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, said he didn't hear any reasons to suggest that the agencies should remain separate.

"The goal is efficiency and effectiveness," Simrill said. "And everything from the incarceration to the parole to the probation is related."

The panel will meet again two or three times by December and compile recommendations for the Legislature to consider after it reconvenes in January. The next meeting has not been scheduled.

Reach Yvonne Wenger at 803-926-7855 or ywenger@postandcourier.com.