County to consider work release for prisoners

Throwing a parent in jail for non-payment of child support does not make it easier for him to pay the money he owes, says Beaufort County Clerk of Court Elizabeth Smith.

“All we’re doing right now is increasing the revolving door at the jail,” she said. “... If they have a job, they lose it and they sit in jail for 90 days. The child still isn’t getting the support they need.”

Last year, Smith proposed a program to allow those jailed for non-payment of child support to pay off their debt by continuing to work or by helping them find a new job. Smith also suggested turning the former Battery Creek High School gymnasium into a minimum-security dormitory for those jailed for non-payment of child support and other lesser non-violent and non-sexual offenses.

The Beaufort County Council is expected to consider Smith’s proposal as it plots the creation of a work-release program at a budget workshop in April or May.Under Smith’s proposal, 55 percent of the money prisoners earn while in the program pays their overdue child support, $10 a day goes to the county to fund the program, and the prisoner keeps the rest.

Smith’s program is modeled after one started by York County Clerk of Court David Hamilton.

Hamilton’s program takes an additional $10 every day from prisoners for meals. Though hardly a money-maker for York County, the 11-year-old program serves its purpose, Hamilton said.

“We’re making sure that children are fed and getting the support that they need, and that’s what we’re supposed to be doing,” Hamilton said. “The inmates go straight to work and straight home — home being prison.”

A work-release program was recommended in a November report examining solutions to overcrowding at the Beaufort County Detention Center. At that time, 49 people were in jail on family court matters.

The county paid $24,000 to Lexington-based consulting firm Stewart, Konduros and Associates — a firm founded by former State Law Enforcement Division Chief Robert Stewart — to look at chronic overcrowding at the county jail. The jail has a capacity of 255 inmates, but an average daily population of more than 360.

In addition to holding drug court more often and using masters in equity to handle pleas in general sessions court, the report said creating a work release program would “save money and put the offenders’ time to a more beneficial purpose.”

The report said the proposed dorm would need to be able to house at least 24 inmates.

Smith said alleviating jail overcrowding was not the primary focus of her program, but is certainly a significant ancillary benefit.

Beaufort County administrator Gary Kubic plans to invite the consultants to the Beaufort County Council in April or May to discuss the viability of creating the program in the 2010 fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Kubic said the county does not know the program’s initial cost.

“It’s a great idea, but we have to review the laws and get the judges and the courts involved, look at electronic monitoring for inmates in the program and, if we’re creating a misdemeanor facility, we’ll have to review the S.C. Department of Corrections standards,” he said.