Imagine a world without second chances — a world where the long shadow of bad decisions looms over the rest of your life. For thousands of South Carolinians like me, there is nothing to imagine.
A decade after a felony conviction, I was shocked to find that I couldn’t get a simple retail job; I thought I had paid my debt to society in full. My experience is not unique. There are 20,000 people incarcerated in South Carolina, 30,000 people under correctional supervision, and thousands more living with a criminal record. For us, second chances are hard to find. The Council of State Governments reports that previously incarcerated people face 714 legal barriers in South Carolina, on top of 1,196 federal barriers.
South Carolinians across the political spectrum want our state to be a place where second chances are not only possible, but plentiful — even for those with a criminal record. The city of Greenville and the state of South Carolina have supported such second chances with proclamations, stressing the need to raise awareness of and remove barriers to successful reentry.
But second chances must start long before individuals are released. At every step from arrest to release, our state desperately needs criminal justice reforms that will help transform lives and protect communities.
South Carolina’s prison system is overcrowded, understaffed and full of aging prisoners serving lengthy sentences. Antiquated drug laws fill beds with incarcerated people who would be better served by community supervision. Prison administrators have insufficient time, space or funding to focus on transformative programming. In these conditions, too few South Carolinians have an opportunity to turn their lives around and prepare for a second chance in society.
State House members recently introduced a comprehensive reform package that would have capitalized on prior improvements to the state’s criminal justice system. If passed, it would have safely reduced the prison population while saving taxpayer dollars.
Though the Legislature was unable to fully address this issue during the session, there are opportunities to come back next year and work toward focusing prison beds on those who present a threat to public safety, expanding parole and release options, and strengthening community supervision.
When people are eligible for release on parole, they also hit a roadblock before leaving the prison gates. Only about a third of those eligible for parole actually get a hearing, and less than one-tenth get paroled. There are also gaps in the use of evidence-based supervision and reentry practices.
The reforms proposed in the House this year included language aimed at incentives for good behavior through release on supervision, which helps reduce recidivism. They also would have shifted supervisory resources to the most serious, highest-risk cases by shortening probation for lower-risk cases. This would have protected the public while making sure that parole-eligible, nonviolent people don’t languish in prison unnecessarily at taxpayer expense.
Will lawmakers commit to unlocking second chances for people with a criminal record? Next term, state policymakers should support criminal justice reforms that hold people accountable for crime, provide opportunities for transformation, and offer a second chance to those who have paid their debt.
Jerry Blassingame is the executive director of Soteria Community Development Corporation and senior pastor of Soteria Christian Fellowship.