by Gavin Jackson
COLUMBIA — Sentencing reforms passed in 2010 have greatly reduced South Carolina's prison population, saving the state from having to spend at least $491 million to construct and operate new prisons, according to a recent report.
Incarceration times for non-violent offenders, the creation of more parole opportunities and a declining crime rate have collectively helped reduce the number of South Carolinians behind bars. In turn, it has led to the closure of six prison facilities.
Former S.C. Department of Corrections Director Jon Ozmint, who sits with state Senate and House legislators on the Sentencing Reform Oversight Committee, said Monday the reductions validate the group's mission.
"I lived through all those years of 2003 to 2011 when we saw those increases," he said of the pre-reform years. "And we knew we were staring right down the barrel of 28,000 inmates and we knew what that meant in terms of prison construction."
South Carolina was one of a handful of states at the time to pass sentencing reforms for non-violent offenders and drug offenders while increasing parole opportunities. The state has since dropped from the 11th-highest imprisonment rate in the country to the 20th in 2014.
The state numbers, however, still remain slightly above the national average, said Laura Bennett, a data analyst with Pew Charitable Trusts, who added that corrections can still be a financial drain.
"Prisons are expensive," she said. "One of the chief goals of the sentencing reform commission was to contain those corrections costs so that resources could be focused on housing serious and violent offenders and reinvesting in programs that will reduce criminal behavior."
While the state's prison population dropped to 20,732 — its lowest level in 15 years — admission and recidivism rates both ticked up marginally for the first time since decreasing annually after the reforms were passed.