Careful study needed on sentencing changes

In a one-size-fits-all world, establishing hard-and-fast rules for sentencing and doing away with parole and credits for good behavior would make sense.

But we don't live in one-size-fits-all world, and we don't live in a state with endless resources to pay for incarcerating people.

A push for such changes by 14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie and the S.C. Solicitors Association is understandable, particularly in the wake of 8-year-old Khalil Singleton's death and the charges against Tyrone Robinson, who had been released early from prison several times for previous convictions.

Stone says he wants to get rid of the credits prisoners earn for work, education and good behavior, as well as parole. He and Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner say some people know how to work the system to get out of prison without the restrictions of parole. The two see longer sentences as a deterrent to crime.

But taking away incentives for good behavior, particularly incentives for education, strikes us as short-sighted and counter-productive to reducing recidivism.

It also was just two years ago that lawmakers passed substantive sentencing reform, based on the recommendations of the state's Sentencing Reform Commission. Among the its findings:

  • South Carolina's prison population had increased from 9,100 inmates in 1983 to more than 25,000 in 2009. One in 38 adults in South Carolina was under the control of the corrections department. The prison population was expected to grow to nearly 28,000 by 2015.
  • Building new prison space could cost $317 million and add $141 million to the Department of Corrections annual costs.
  • The overall inmate population was over capacity at maximum- and medium-security prisons.
  • 46 percent of offenders were in jail, while 54 percent were on probation or parole. Nationally, states averaged 30 percent in prison and 70 percent on some type of supervised release.
  • Sentencing policies had caused the number of people entering prisons for nonviolent drug and property crimes to triple since 1980.
  • Forty-nine percent of South Carolina's prison population was being held for nonviolent offenses.
  • David Pascoe, president of the Solicitors Association, said he was studying data from Virginia's truth-in-sentencing law, passed in 1994. The state abolished parole and requires prisoners to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. Prisoners can earn credits to reduce their sentences by 15 percent.

    A study on the cost of longer prison sentences released in June by the Pew Center on States found that overall time served in Virginia was up 91 percent from 1990 to 2009. Time served for violent offenders was up 68 percent, while time served for drug offenses was up 72 percent. The total cost of keeping offenders in prison longer was $518.8 million.

    In South Carolina, the overall time served was up 33 percent from 1990 to 2009, according to the study. Time served for violent crime offenders was up 21 percent, while time served for drug offenses was up 57 percent. The total cost of keeping offenders in prison longer was $115.9 million.

    The report was based on National Corrections Reporting Program data from 35 states that was collected and verified by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

    The study concluded that many non-violent offenders could have served prison terms between three months and two years shorter with little or no public safety consequences.

    "The idea behind longer prison terms is that they will cut crime and recidivism," said Adam Gelb, director of the Pew Center's Public Safety Performance Project. "But for a large number of lower-risk offenders, that just isn't the case. There's a high cost and little to no crime control benefit."

    Perhaps there are changes to be made that would keep the most violent and incorrigible people in prison longer, but we ought to make distinctions among types of crime, as well as individuals. And we ought to encourage activities in prison that will reduce the likelihood of offenders returning.

    Lawmakers should fully understand the ramifications before moving ahead.