Gideon Alert: South Carolina Governor signs reform bill to stem ineffectively expensive over-incarceration of non-violent offenders

BY David Carroll on Wednesday, June 2, 2010 at 12:25 PM

On June 2, 2010, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford signed into law a sweeping sentencing reform bill that his press release states will “reverse the trend toward incarcerating non-violent criminals who pose little or no risk to the public, discourage recidivism by providing inmates with a more closely supervised transition to society once their sentences have been served, and at the same time save taxpayers more than $400 million over the next five years.”

The legislation resulted from the work of a bi-partisan commission, made up of members from the legislature, the judiciary and the executive branch, charged with studying “[r]ising recidivism rates, increasing prison populations, limited sentencing alternatives and re-entry programs, and mounting correctional costs for both state and local governments.”  The Commission report states that the growing correctional population in South Carolina has increased costs from $63.71 million in 1983 to over $394.15 million in 2008 (an increase of more than 500%).

Commission Chairman (and panelist at the U.S. Department of Justice Indigent Defense Symposium) Senator Gerald Malloy stated that the goal of the commission was to make South Carolina a better and safer place to live by reducing recidivism and the revolving door to prisons, proposing fair and effective sentencing options, using tax dollars wisely and ensuring that prison beds are available for violent offenders who need to be in prison and remain in prison.  Malloy stated in an opinion piece in the Greenville News last week: “The legislation addresses the fact that the expense of locking up violent offenders and career criminals for a long time is justified many times over.  But, we also recognize that non-violent, lower level inmates are the ones filling the state’s prisons and that there are more effective approaches to dealing with these offenders.”

Senate Bill 1154 has three distinct sections.  The first part aims to provide “consistency in sentencing classifications, provide proportional punishments for the offenses committed, and reduce the risk of recidivism.”  The second part is intended to “provide cost-effective prison release and community supervision mechanisms and cost-effective and incentive based strategies for alternatives to incarceration in order to reduce recidivism and improve public safety.”  The last part intends to establish “oversight revisions to fiscal impact statements and also a committee to continue oversight of the implementations of the Sentencing Reform Commission recommendations”

Among other things, provisions in SB 1154:

- Increase access to work-release programs for prisoners;
- Require prisoners with sentences of 2 or more years to participate in prisoner re-entry programs 180 days prior to being released;
- Require probation agents use “practicable and suitable methods that are consistent with evidence-based practices to aid and encourage persons on probation, parole, or community supervision to bring about improvement in their conduct and condition and to reduce the risk of recidivism for the offenders under his supervision;”
- Create administrative sanctions intended to be an alternative to full revocation of probation and prison;
- Require fiscal impact statements be submitted to the legislature whenever new criminal offense legislation is proposed;
- Add new provisions to the non-trafficking drug laws allowing the sentence to be suspended and probation granted, and make offenders eligible for parole, supervised furlough, community supervision, work release, work credits, education credits, and good conduct credits;
- Reduce the driver’s license suspension for drug convictions from 1 year to 6 months;
- Require “cost-effective prison release and community supervision mechanisms and cost-effective and incentive-based strategies for alternatives to incarceration in order to reduce recidivism and improve public safety;”
- Allow for greater use of home incarceration as an alternative to jail/prison;
- Require the parole board use “evidence-based practices for determining offender risk, needs and motivations to change” in deciding whether to parole inmates;
- Increase the training and qualification requirements of members of the parole board, including requiring an annual training course;
- Require the probation department develop a plan to use “a validated actuarial risk and needs assessment tool consistent with evidence-based practices and factors;” and,
- Create a Sentencing Reform Oversight Committee to oversee and ensure implementation of the reforms.

GIDEON ALERTS recognizes the timely assistance of the South Carolina Public Defender Association with digesting the comprehensive bill for our readership.