“South Carolina is usually the first of everything bad and last in everything good,” state Senator Gerald Malloy (D) told a local newspaper this week. But not this time on criminal justice reform. In 2010, Malloy’s bill to reduce the prison terms for nonviolent offenders while strengthening penalties for some of the worst offenders was signed into law by the state’s Republican governor, and makes the conservative state a potential leader on criminal justice reform.
The bill rejects the “tough on crime” approach that politicians think voters like in favor of a “smart on crime” approach that polls show voters increasingly actually favor. And already, it is saving the state gobs of money. In 2012 alone, the South Carolina reform saved taxpayers more than $3 million, according to a Vera Institute study. Instead of the projected 3,200-inmate increase in the prison population by 2014, the population has already decreased by 2,700 since 2010. Probation for those whose prison terms are shortened costs the state just $1,088 per year, as compared to $17,342 per year to keep someone in prison.
South Carolina was prompted to pass the bill as its Department of Corrections faced a $27 million deficit. Nationwide, state corrections spending is the fastest-growing budgetary item after Medicaid, according to a New York Times report. And while it is still early to gauge the long-term impacts of the South Carolina change, a recent report by the Pew Center on the States concludes that longer prison terms are “high cost” and “low return”:
Although few Americans would question the wisdom of tough sentences for violent, chronic offenders, most criminologists now consider the increased use of prison for non-violent offenders a questionable public expenditure, producing little additional crime control benefit for each dollar spent.
During the past decade, all 17 states that cut their imprisonment rates also experienced a decline in crime rates. And a 2006 legislative analysis in Washington State found that while incarcerating violent offenders provides a net public benefit by saving the state more than it costs, imprisonment of property and drug offenders leads to negative returns.
The report also finds that nearly 90 percent of those polled “support shortening prison terms by up to a year for low-risk, nonviolent offenders if they have behaved well in prison or completed programming.” Voters even support reinvesting prison savings in alternatives to incarceration, which is exactly what South Carolina is doing. The state is routing all of the savings back into more sentencing reform, a substantial portion of which includes better training for staff that work with the more serious, violent prisoners and a program to show inmates how their crimes hurt others.
Those released from prison early, meanwhile, are participating in probation programs that provide incentives for good behavior, rather than punishing violators with an automatic return to prison. Those without family support are assigned a counselor — a move that has already doubled the rate of juvenile offenders successfully completing probation in one South Carolina county.
Overall, early analysis of the law by the State newspaper reveals almost no negative effects, except that more of the savings need to go toward probation services. The law is rightly being viewed as a model for reform, not only to save states money, but to mitigate the U.S. epidemic of over-incarceration.