Prison Law Blog

Sara Mayeux

South Carolina Debates Sentencing Reforms

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The Palmetto State has seen its prison population triple since 1983, with much of that increase coming from nonviolent offenders and — similar to, although not as extreme as, California — technical parole violators. According to the Sentencing Project’s interactive map (which, by the way, is a great source of data), South Carolina currently incarcerates over 36,000 men and women, with another 40,000+ on probation or parole, all at a cost of $629 million per year. Though it’s worth noting that unlike some other states, the incarceration rate in South Carolina is not hugely disparate between blacks and whites (the ratio is 1.1:1 — compare, for instance, Connecticut, which has a 6.6:1 ratio. As you can see, the “Compare by States” feature of the Sentencing Project map is really handy). The combination of budget woes and prison overcrowding came to a head in South Carolina earlier this year, when the state had to decide whether to release 3,000 prisoners or run a $29 million deficit.

With the goals of hemming in prison spending and alleviating overcrowding, the South Carolina legislature is currently considering a proposal to provide alternate sanctions for nonviolent offenders. Here’s a description of the bill, from a Greenville News editorial in favor of the legislation:

The bill further defines violent and nonviolent crimes, calls for streamlining sentencing to ensure there is room in state prisons for the most violent offenders, and reduces sentences for some nonviolent crimes. It also establishes options for community-based programs such as the drug courts that have been effective in Greenville County.

The changes were proposed by the legislatively appointed Sentencing Reform Commission and were published earlier this year. The need for sentencing reform is evident. … Nearly half of the system’s inmates are being held for nonviolent offenses. …

According to the Sentencing Reform Commission, the proposed changes would save taxpayers $92 million in Corrections’ operating costs over five years. They also would save Corrections the estimated $317 million it would cost to add the prison space that would be needed absent the changes.

It’s worth noting, though, that the bill would also lengthen some sentences: the Orangeburg Times and Democrat reports, for instance, that it would increase the maximum penalty for attempted murder to 30 years (from a current maximum of 10 years).

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