South Carolina Sentencing Reforms A New Reality Based Public Policy
Earlier this summer, South Carolina became the latest state to adopt sentencing reforms aimed at reducing penitentiary expenses. South Carolina's prison population rose abruptly from just over 9,000 inmates in 1983 to more than 24,000 by the end of 2009, with steep future increases projected. Over the same interval, the state prison budget rose from $63.7 million to almost $400 million. Despite this massive public investment, rates of violent crime and recidivism in the state have remained high. According to The Pew Center on the States, spending on corrections throughout the U.S. increased more than fourfold over the past two decades. One percent of American adults are behind bars, and corrections budgets are the fastest growing expense item for state governments after Medicaid. The Pew Center, which advises many states about public safety performance, praised South Carolina's dedication to the issue. Richard Jerome, project manager of the organization's Public Safety Performance Project, said that "South Carolina policy makers put aside ideology, looked at the data and forged a comprehensive package of reforms that will get taxpayers a better return on their public safety dollars."
Strategies for Efficient Implementation of Sentences
One strategy that the new law employs is to provide eligibility for parole or probation to non-violent drug offenders, rather than requiring them to serve mandatory prison sentences. In addition, convicted drug offenders will now be required to pay fines, which will be dedicated to funding drug treatment and other rehabilitative programs. But the new law increases punishment for some violent crimes and focuses resources on the decision-making process for early release and ongoing supervision of parolees.
This legislation signed in June by Governor Mark Sanford was the result of a year of concerted efforts by the South Carolina Sentencing Reform Commission, which was made up of members of the state legislature and judiciary. The commission also took into account important insights from the defense bar, prosecutors, crime victims' organizations and law enforcement.
With similar recent developments in states such as Texas and Mississippi, some commentators perceive a trend away from the punitive sentencing enhancements put in place by many states in the 1990s. Incarceration is a drastic step for a society to take to uphold justice, and the public should rightly expect proportionality and effective results. Meanwhile, criminal defense lawyers must strive to see that suspects are not excessively charged and that the state is held to its steep burden of proof before denying a citizen of his or her liberty.