cells Berkeley Detention Ctr.jpg (copy)

Berkeley County's Hill-Finklea Detention Center maximum security section on October 9, 2018. 

In all but six states, criminals given sentences of less than year go to a county jail. Those given sentences of more than a year go to a state prison.

South Carolina, however, is an extreme outlier where anyone with a sentence of more than three months is by law sent to prison.

That needs to change, and Rep. Eddie Tallon, R-Spartanburg, is ready to lead the way if sheriffs are willing to take on additional inmates and the S.C. Department of Corrections can cover their costs.

The chronically understaffed Corrections Department typically has 800-plus prisoners doing sentences of less than a year at an annual cost of about $19 million. And because it typically costs more to keep someone in a prison than a jail, the prison system should be able to fully reimburse sheriff’s offices for their costs.

But getting sheriffs to accept state prisoners could be a hard sell. Some simply don’t have room or are under staffed as well, and they are likely to resist a change in state law that would foist more inmates on them, even though the General Assembly’s Legislative Audit Council recently recommended it and prisons Director Bryan Stirling said he was on board.

Some county jails already accept “contract” detainees. Charleston County jail, for instance, has been housing hundreds of detainees for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But in March, Sheriff Al Cannon announced the jail would stop accepting them until he could increase staffing.

Many of the state’s 45 other sheriffs, however, would likely welcome state prisoners and the revenue that would come with them.

The S.C. Sheriffs’ Association has yet to take a formal position on the proposal, but lawmakers should consider crafting legislation that would allow sheriffs — but not force them — to keep inmates with sentences of less than a year in exchange for reimbursement by the Corrections Department. That’s just what Rep. Tallon has in mind.

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Keeping short-timers in county jails would not only take some pressure off the prison system by reducing the overall population but eliminate many of the administrative costs associated with admitting and discharging convicts and transporting them from county jails to prisons.

Law enforcement is a core function of government and one that South Carolinians generally support. But all too often, a big part of the equation – incarceration – is ignored. That’s unfair from all perspectives.

Sheriffs should strive to find common ground with lawmakers on this issue. Certainly sheriffs willing to hang onto short-timers in county lockups should have that option, and lawmakers should give it to them.

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