So much for South Carolina's tough-on-crime reputation.

Faced with yet another budget shortfall, some lawmakers want to cut loose three prisons' worth of inmates -- which would make up almost 10 whole percent of the deficit.

Yes, this is just as nuts as it sounds.

Lawmakers talk big to get elected -- "We're going to lock 'em up and throw away the key," they say. But apparently that applies only when they don't have to pay for the lock. Or the key.

Consider this: The Department of Corrections says that when South Carolina prisoners are released, about one in three commits another crime and ends up back in the slammer. And those are just the ones who get caught.

So, basically, letting 3,000 prisoners go is the statistical equivalent of politicians unleashing 1,000 hardened, career criminals on voters.

What kind of message is this sending to criminals? Now, for a limited time only, South Carolina is offering 50 percent off all possession sentences, 40 percent off breaking and entering raps, and 35 percent off any auto theft.

Act now; this offer expires with the next housing bubble.

Bread, not quiche

This is not the Department of Corrections' fault.

A Legislative Audit Council investigation found that South Carolina spends less to imprison criminals than any state in the South. This year that figure is about $14,545 per thug. Most, like Florida, spend more than $20,000.

The wardens here aren't piping in HBO to these guys; they are feeding them for less than $1.50 a day each. Talk about bread and water. That's fiscal responsibility.

The agency is housing 24,000 inmates in a system built for 18,000, and it is doing it on a relative shoestring of a budget.

The General Assembly has not only failed to keep up with inflation, it has cut the budget so much that Corrections has suffered 1,400 layoffs in recent years. This plan would put another 700 in the state's long and winding unemployment line.

Sometimes all that stands between you and a convicted murderer is a fence and a guy with a gun. And now the state wants to lay off the guy with the gun.

Scare tactics?

This is the Legislature's fault. Sure, times are tough, but it's funny how every year the budget shortfall is about a half-billion dollars, which is about what the General Assembly cut in taxes during the previous fatted calf days.

And this plan, if it happens, would not save South Carolinians any money whatsoever. The state would have to hire more probation and parole officers, and pay the unemployment benefits for the prison workers. Local police would need more officers to be on the lookout for these guys.

And the costs would be passed on through local taxes.

Maybe this is all just a ploy, a scare tactic to shock us into accepting some tax increase. It won't work because politicians have set unrealistic expectations, but it's an interesting question: What is safety worth to you?

Nah, the Legislature wouldn't ask that. It'll just cut school funding some more.

It's in the lawmakers' best interest to keep voters from getting too smart.