Chief Justice Don Beatty (copy)

SC Chief Justice Don Beatty asked lawmakers for judicial pay raises and more stable funding during his annual State of the Judicial address. Jamie Lovegrove/Staff

Prisons are dangerously overcrowded, in part because the Corrections Department can’t find enough people who will work as correctional officers. The results, as we saw a year ago, can be deadly.

The Department of Social Services is under court order to improve services and protection for the 4,600 children in its care, yet previous funding increases haven’t been enough to make the job attractive, so a federal judge could soon order actions we won’t like.

In our schools, class sizes are creeping up, and districts have to use substitutes and import teachers from other countries because fewer and fewer people are finding it attractive to become and remain teachers.

Teachers are to receive 4 percent pay raises next year, with new teachers making up to 10 percent more, and a promise of a total 10 percent hike over the next few years. Most other state employees are on track for 2 percent cost-of-living pay raises.

But the biggest salary hikes in the budget passed by the House and under debate this week in the Senate won’t go to those who fill our most understaffed positions. That honor goes to our state’s judges — a group of people who want their jobs so much that they’re willing to plan and plot for years in advance, and subjugate themselves to standing around in an underground parking garage for hours on end, days on end, just for the opportunity to say “good morning” to the hiring directors.

Judges’ salaries would increase by 15 percent under the Senate Finance Committee plan — 33 percent under the budget passed by the House. Prosecutors and public defenders, whose salaries are tied to judicial salaries, also would see pay hikes.

Good judges are essential to any free society, and S.C. judges don’t receive across-the-board raises when other state employees do. That probably should change.

But we haven’t heard any serious contentions that our judges are incompetent. We also haven’t seen evidence that we are unable to attract a steady supply of qualified candidates to fill openings on the bench.

What we hear are arguments that our judges make less money than judges in other states, and concerns about whether we’ll continue to attract good candidates, with its implication that we’re not luring the very best attorneys away from lucrative private practices.

Neither argument washes.

We agree that it would be nice to be able to increase judges’ salaries. It also would be nice to be able to increase the salaries of Highway Patrol troopers, SLED agents, DHEC inspectors, drug counselors, state auditors and countless other public servants. But unless we decide that we want to pay higher taxes, and elect a Legislature that raises them, we don’t have the money to raise people’s pay just because it’s a nice thing to do. We must concentrate our money on those crucial jobs that we have been unable to fill.

SC legislators are on track to  approve the largest spending increase per public school student since 2006, directing that additional money to much-needed teacher raises. But state funding still will lag what state law requires. The Legislature can and should do more - and also pass education reforms that will improve what is taught in classrooms.

The political reality is that unlike teachers and correctional officers and social workers, judges can’t just move to another state, because they don’t have the political connections to be selected as judges in other states. They can be judges here, or they can be lawyers. It is, in short, a buyers’ market for judges.

Because there are so few of them, it costs a lot less money to raise pay for judges — even significantly — than for teachers or prison guards or DSS workers. The Senate plan spends $6 million, the House $11 million — compared to $159 million for teacher raises. But that’s still $6 million or $11 million that could be spent to help fill jobs that aren’t being filled.

Our state’s priority should be, must be, to raise salaries for those positions we can’t fill at current salaries. Once we get that done, we can move on to jobs we wish we could pay better.