Prison riot (copy)

Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, S.C., where seven inmates were killed and 17 other seriously injured in fights between prisoners. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)

Sean Rayford

By MARC HYDEN

In 2010, South Carolina enacted the Omnibus Crime Reduction and Sentencing Reform Act. Roughly eight years later, this landmark legislation has been lauded as a success. The act lowered corrections costs and reduced recidivism rates. Meanwhile, public safety has also improved.

While this is cause for celebration, South Carolina’s criminal justice system is still in need of improvements. South Carolina is hamstrung by a large, costly prison population. In fact, it has the 19th highest inmate population in the nation, with nearly 20,000 offenders incarcerated. The average annual cost of housing an inmate is over $18,000, totaling a whopping $360 million taxpayer bill.

Needless to say, the prison system remains extraordinarily expensive. This has prompted Reps. Michael Pitts, R-Laurens, J. David Weeks, D-Sumter, and Greg Delleney, R-Chester, to introduce H 5155, which promises to accomplish many things. It would modify sentences for nonviolent offenders; permit elderly, nonthreatening inmates to apply for release; and implement incentives to further reduce recidivism rates. H 5155 represents a valuable opportunity to transform the criminal justice system for the better and save money.

As it stands, a host of nonviolent infractions are punishable by rigid mandatory-minimum sentences set by the Legislature. Regardless of extenuating factors, many of those who commit crimes must spend a minimum term behind bars. In fact, almost one-third of S.C. inmates are imprisoned for nonviolent crimes, and many are serving mandatory minimums. By mandating sentences, punishments sometimes don’t match the crime.

H 5155, however, would lift many mandatory minimums. It would also give courts greater authority to determine what sentences are appropriate. With shorter sentences for nonviolent crimes, the overall prison population would be reduced, offenders would be given a second chance and the financial burden of housing inmates would decrease.

Additionally, many elderly inmates have remained incarcerated for far too long. Ten percent of South Carolina’s prisoners are over the age of 56. Currently, it’s no easy feat to release geriatric inmates who no longer pose a threat, but there is good reason to change this state of affairs. H 5155 aims to allow inmates age 60 or older to petition for an early release. There are caveats, though. They must have already served 50 percent of their sentence and must no longer be deemed a threat. They would be ineligible for release if they had been originally convicted of domestic violence or various sex crimes.

Addressing policies associated with nonviolent offenders and the aging prisoner population are important steps, but it wouldn’t be wise to ignore those serving sentences for committing violent crimes. After all, they account for roughly two-thirds of the prison population. And although 56 percent of prisoners are serving no-parole sentences, many will eventually be released. The struggle is how to reinforce productive behavior among these inmates. H 5155 would address this problem by incentivizing no-parole prisoners to behave in prison and strive to better themselves.

For South Carolina to take its next great stride, legislators need to further address mandatory minimums, the elderly and recidivism rates. H 5155 is a great vehicle to accomplish these goals, and it deserves the Legislature’s attention.

Marc Hyden is the Southeast region director for the R Street Institute. You can follow him on Twitter at @marc_hyden.