COLUMBIA -- Gov. Mark Sanford threw his support Wednesday behind a proposed law to shift future nonviolent offenders to alternative sentences as a way to free up more than 2,400 prison beds for violent criminals and avoid the $300 million-plus expense of building a new prison.
The legislation, drafted by the bipartisan Sentencing Reform Commission after a year of research, is on the fast-track toward approval. The Senate passed a bill March 30; the full House Judiciary Committee likely will approve it next, which would send it to the House floor.
Sanford said the plan will save money in a cash-strapped prison system, which already spends less in almost every area than any other system in the country, by diverting the future offenders to probation and parole and by offering more work credits and good-behavior incentives.
The legislation does not provide any new money for the probation and parole system, which already is overtaxed.
South Carolina spends $35 per day per inmate, while the Southeastern average is $52.90.
The state went from spending $64 million on about 9,000 inmates in 1983 to nearly $400 million on about 24,000 inmates today. Without a change in sentencing, the prison population is projected to grow to 27,900 inmates in the next five years.
That population surge would cost an estimated $141 million in operation costs and require the construction of a new prison, estimated at $317 million.
Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Isle of Palms, said the sentencing reform plan represents one of the most significant bills he has played a role in during his time in the Statehouse. Campsen was a member of the Sentencing Reform Commission, which was composed of legislators, judges and prisons director Jon Ozmint.
"If we do not implement the reforms in this piece of legislation, we are going to have financial crisis in the Department of Corrections, in our criminal justice system, that we simply cannot manage," Campsen said.
"We have a $450 million liability staring us in the face if we don't do something," he said.
Ozmint said the bill is a first in the state's history.
"We don't have a criminal justice system," Ozmint said. "What we have is a piecemeal patchwork system of laws and policies." It was put together over the years without a comprehensive view that one might affect the other, he said.
As the savings come in over the next five years, Ozmint said lawmakers must go in and shift more money to the probation and parole system.
"The savings aren't immediate," Ozmint said. "They can't do it right now."
Falling tax revenues because of the recession and recent tax cuts have left the state financially strapped. Probation and parole agents are overwhelmed as it is with larger caseloads and less money, but the prison system isn't any better off.
The Department of Corrections is running a $30 million deficit this year. The agency ran a $45.5 million deficit last year and a $3.9 million deficit the year before that.
Sanford and Ozmint worked on legislation similar to the reform plan seven years ago that designed an alternative sentencing program.
"This has been a long-term goal of this administration based on the reality of the numbers," the governor said.
The widespread support for the legislation is a result of the process the commission underwent to draft it. During the last year the commission took information and incorporated feedback from solicitors, victim advocates, public defenders, national experts and state law enforcement authorities into the plan.
Victoria Middleton, executive director the South Carolina office of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the bill will do good but doesn't go far enough. For example, she said the state should push back mandatory minimums sentences.
"Reform is vital and overdue," Middleton said. "There is no question that our justice system is broken."
AT A GLANCE
The proposal for sentencing reform has passed the Senate and is pending in the House. It has Gov. Mark Sanford's support and is headed toward approval. Here are some details about the provisions in the 92-page bill:
• Reclassifies 24 crimes as violent, including drunken driving that results in death, lewd act on a child and hit-and-run accidents that cause a death.
• Assesses inmates on probation and parole for antisocial behaviors, criminal friends, dysfunctional families and substance abuse and responds with treatment to reduce the risk that they will commit future crimes.
• Provides incentives, such as "good time credits," for people on probation and parole to stay crime- and drug-free.
• Gives judges more discretion for sentencing drug users.
• Lets more inmates qualify for work release.
• Removes the disparity in sentencing between crack and cocaine possession.
• Allows terminally ill and geriatric inmates to receive special parole.
• Mandates new supervision for inmates who are released from prison.