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Editorials represent the institutional view of the newspaper. They are written and edited by the editorial staff, which operates separately from the news department. Editorial writers are not involved in newsroom operations.

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Editorial: Reducing corruption starts with trying to reduce corruption. SC should start.

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Police were quick to adopt a zero-tolerance approach to street crime, but South Carolina takes just the opposite approach to government corruption, where it could work even better, with less of a downside. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

You’ve heard of the broken-window approach to policing? It’s the idea that an unrepaired broken window signals that nobody cares enough to repair it and encourages criminals to break more windows, and engage in more and more dangerous acts of lawlessness. So just as it’s important to replace the broken window immediately, it’s important for police to arrest people for such minor crimes as jaywalking, loitering and public drunkenness.

Critics point out that police tend to notice the broken windows in poor neighborhoods and concentrate their presence in those neighborhoods, leading to arrests of poor people who are doing the same things that better-off people get away with in their own less-policed areas.

Whether it’s worth the cost is a debate for another time, but the approach absolutely can work — and not just with street crime. The psychology behind it applies just as well — perhaps better — to government corruption, where a culture of abuse breeds more abuse, not just for the individual but for everyone else. Where getting away with one little breach emboldens people to go bigger. And where a zero-tolerance policy has none of the downsides of urban policing.

Unfortunately, the official watchdogs in our state and local governments don’t believe in the broken-window approach to ethics — or at least aren’t allowed by the Legislature to practice it.

As part of our Uncovered investigation, The Post and Courier’s Tony Bartelme reviewed more than 1,100 ethics and professional discipline cases against S.C. educators, law enforcement officers, judges and other state employees who clearly crossed ethical lines since 2018. He found two clear patterns: All but the most notorious cases are handled quietly, almost always outside the criminal justice system, even though many cases involve criminal violations, and it takes a lot of knowledge and determination to find out about them.

In case after case, officials handed out written reprimands or suspensions ... to DOT employees who accepted cash from contractors, elected officials who refused to disclose campaign donors or voted for projects that enriched their relatives, teachers who stole from their students, principals who threatened subordinates. Magistrates stayed on the bench despite serious conflicts of interest because the governor reappointed them without knowing about reprimands. Police who assaulted completely harmless citizens were allowed to resign rather than face trial. 

These are not the sort of unvetted complaints whose secrecy we've decried before. These are findings of wrongdoing by disciplinary bodies, and as Mr. Bartelme reports, many disciplinary records are “tucked in agency filing systems or obscure corners of government websites,” leaving the general public “hard-pressed to find them without determined digging, knowledge of the state’s Freedom of Information Act and a checkbook to cover fees many agencies slap on people who ask for this information.”

The State Education Department has a public database where you can find teachers who have committed such heinous crimes as quitting their jobs mid-year in order to move with their spouse to another state. But don’t expect to log on to a government website and find information about government employees, other than educators, who actually abuse or endanger the public: The Criminal Justice Academy doesn’t have a searchable database of misconduct cases. The Ethics Commission posts a list of disciplinary actions, but it doesn’t say what officials did to get in trouble or even where they work.

That means the public is unlikely to ever find out the degree to which government employees are abusing their positions, at our expense. More importantly, it means their coworkers might never know that others were held accountable for their breaches; worse, they might find out that all they got was a slap on the wrist. Either way, when it comes to requiring government employees to obey the rules, our state does precious little to dole out deterrence — another criminal-justice theory we believe in when it comes to street crime, despite the high cost and mixed results.

Catching street criminals and deterring street crime can be difficult. Catching and deterring ethics crime is pretty easy — if you actually want to do it. It's something our state needs to start wanting, and doing.

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