COLUMBIA — South Carolina has a new way of dealing with criminals that judges, victims’ advocates, crime and justice experts and Republicans and Democrats all have signed off on.
The comprehensive new law is intended to save money while diverting nonviolent offenders from prison to community-based programs so space is available in prison for violent criminals. Gov. Mark Sanford signed it into law Wednesday.
The new law was one year in the making. It is intended to:
–Make sure there is space for high-risk, violent offenders in prison while saving the state an estimated $350 million, the cost of building a new prison.
–Help inmates transition from prison life back to society and increase supervision of former inmates in the community.
–Provide incentives for probationers and parolees to stay drug- and crime-free in order to go from being tax burdens to taxpayers.
The lengthy new law also redefines 22 crimes as violent, providing longer sentences for some offenders. The new sentences would apply to people who commit crimes beginning on Wednesday.
It would not alter the sentences of people already serving time or those awaiting a trial, although it will allow for the early release of geriatric, terminally ill and physically disabled inmates.
Other parts of the new law will become effective over time. For example, the new standards for future probation and parole assessments will begin in January.
Lily Lenderman of Spartanburg said she has fought for some of the changes contained in the new law for seven years, after her 27-year-old grandsonwas killed in an accident involving a habitual offender.
The offender was sentenced to seven months, served four months and was arrested again for another crime 18 days after he was released from prison, Lenderman said.
“From a grandmother’s heart, I couldn’t understand that,” she said. “My cause was to get justice for my grandson and to bring something good from his death, and through this I feel like my journey has been worth it.”
The new law also increases maximum penalties for several crimes, such as harboring a fugitive.
It restructures sentences such as requiring a mandatory 30-year sentence for death caused by arson, creating a crime of attempted murder to help charge people appropriately, increasing the amount of victim restitution, and updating fines for theft for the first time in 20 years so values are more in line with present-day costs.
Other odds and ends in the bill include removing the disparity in sentencing between possession of crack cocaine and powder cocaine, establishing an oversight committee to follow the process of the bill’s implementation and measure progress, and allowing people on probation and parole to earn good-time credit.
Overtime savings in the Department of Corrections will be shifted to the probation and parole system, which is currently overwhelmed with large and increasing case loads.
Sanford said the law was “smart on crime,” a sentiment echoed by many Wednesday. The governor said it strikes the right balance and it’s good for the taxpayers. Experts from the Public Safety Performance Project of the Pew Center on the States helped the state develop the new law.
The prison population 25 years ago stood at about 9,000 inmates and is today at 24,000. As the population grew, so did the cost of running the Corrections Department.
In the mid-1980s the prisons ran on $63 million a year. Today it costs $394 million, Sanford said. In another five years the cost is projected to increase by another $141 million, as the prison population grows by another 3,200 inmates.
“For the taxpayers, there is something fundamentally wrong with that system,” Sanford said. “Unless we’re going to build a bunch more jails, you have got to look at alternatives. This bill does that. I think it strikes the right balance and in the process saves the taxpayers over 400 million bucks.”
South Carolina already spends less than $40 per day on each inmate, the second-lowest rate in the nation, Sanford said.
Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Isle of Palms, called the legislation a massive undertaking. He was part of the group that spent the last year coming up with solutions to South Carolina’s haphazard criminal justice system.
“We really made a difference with this bill,” Campsen said. “It is going to change people’s lives. It will help offenders get back on their feet and make sure victims get compensated.”