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An inmate walks along a fenced area in Broad River Correctional on Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018 in Columbia. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

COLUMBIA — Amid chronic staffing shortages in South Carolina's prisons, legislators are considering changing state law to let offenders with short sentences serve out their time in county jails, reducing the number of inmates housed in state facilities.

"Personally, I think it's a good idea," state Rep. Eddie Tallon, chairman of an oversight panel reviewing the state Department of Corrections, said Wednesday. 

Anticipating the opposition, the Spartanburg Republican quickly added, "We wouldn't dare think of doing that without paying the county."

By law, anyone punished with a sentence of more than three months must be sent to a state prison. That's the lowest minimum sentence in the nation for imprisonment.

Only five other states admit inmates into a state prison on less than a year sentence. Indiana and Ohio are closest to South Carolina, with six-month minimums, according to the Legislative Audit Council's lengthy review of the state prisons agency, released Monday.

Improving operations will require either more staff or fewer inmates, the report noted. It recommended increasing the minimum sentence as one way to accomplish the latter, since South Carolina prisons have struggled for years to hire and keep officers. While vacancy rates are improved from the high three years ago, about a third of the 2,350 officer positions across 21 state prisons were vacant as of Aug. 1. Over the last fiscal year alone, 335 employees resigned, according to the agency.  

On average, prisoners spend their first 41 days of state lock-up being processed in Columbia, where they undergo a series of physical and mental screenings that determine where they're sent and their medications, according to the agency.

That means people with short sentences can spend the bulk of their incarceration in those reception and evaluation centers, where housing is more expensive because of the testing, auditors said in their 173-page report

"(Processing) takes a long time. It doesn't make sense to me to take them from where they're from, uproot them and turn them back around," said state Corrections Director Bryan Stirling, who supports the change.

He said he recognizes that counties would need to be compensated for keeping prisoners with short sentences.

No one has proposed a figure. It's unknown what it would take for counties to break even. 

"Placement of these inmates within local detention centers should not be too much of a burden on the detention centers due to the small number of these inmates, especially if these inmates are dispersed throughout several institutions across the state," the report reads.

During fiscal year 2017-18, state prisons housed 893 inmates on sentences of less than a year.

Inmates coming from Greenville County accounted for the biggest chunk of those, at 153 admitted over the course of the year, followed by 71 from Spartanburg County and 64 from York County.

Lexington County's 50 inmates ranked sixth with Richland County next at 39. Berkeley County sent 27 inmates sentenced to less than a year and Charleston County sent 23, ranking 11th and 12th among the state's 46 counties, according to the prisons agency.

But those are year-long tallies. According to the audit, there are far less on any given day. A single-day snapshot shows there were 124 inmates in prison on June 30, 2018, with sentences of up to a year.

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County sheriffs, who run 75 percent of the 44 jails statewide, want more information before weighing in, said Jarrod Bruder, director of the state Sheriff's Association.

The state Association of Counties has also historically opposed the idea but wants to see more details. The concern is that legislators could push a state problem down to the counties, exacerbating local staffing vacancies and space shortages. 

"Who's going to pay for it?" asked Joshua Rhodes, an attorney with the county association. "It's one of those things that sound good, but I don't know how you would make it happen.

"The county jails in several counties are already bursting at the seams as is. They're outdated. They need new facilities," he said, adding that county jails aren't built to provide health care and other services that prisons do. 

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An inmate leans against a railing in Broad River Correctional on Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018 in Columbia. The agency replaced inmates' tan uniforms with orange ones last June, at a cost of $780,000, so officers can better spot them on recreation yards. The sand-colored uniforms made it harder to detect inmates sneaking to spots to retrieve contraband. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Some counties may have the space while others don't, Rhodes said.

In North Carolina, a 2011 state law allows anyone convicted of a misdemeanor to serve their time in county jails where the sheriff volunteers the space. The state reimburses the county for keeping the inmate, according to the North Carolina Sheriff's Association, which manages the program.

Tallon has asked a representative of the group to brief his panel later this fall. 

"If we can figure out a way to solve those issues," Rhodes said. "Right now, it raises more questions than answers." 

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

Assistant Columbia bureau chief

Adcox returned to The Post and Courier in October 2017 after 12 years covering the Statehouse for The Associated Press. She previously covered education for The P&C. She has also worked for The AP in Albany, N.Y., and for The Herald in Rock Hill.