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Laura Hudson: SC Lawmakers Dangerous “Solution” To Crowded Prisons

Shifting costs, shirking accountability, failing victims, endangering communities …

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by LAURA HUDSON || South Carolina’s prison system is underfunded, understaffed and under criticism by our legislature for not doing a better job.  We as a state need to take stock of where we are and where we are going when it comes to locking up those who break the law and threaten the peace of our communities.

Prison is meant for punishment of an individual who has broken the laws of our society, requiring of them to pay their debt to society.  A clear message needs to be conveyed that bad behavior will not be tolerated; do the crime then you must do the time.

Leadership, or the lack of it, from our elected members of the S.C. Senate and House of Representatives is discouraging.  We should demand more from them.

What are we getting from our elected lawmakers?

The legislature’s answer to prison overcrowding is to keep criminals out of correctional facilities and shorten the sentences of those already there.  The job of keeping them out is already being done by county magistrates who let scofflaws out of jail on little to no bond – often on the same individual who is in and out of jail within minutes or hours of being arrested, even though they may have arrested for the same crime many times.

Armed drug dealers – many free on court-ordered bond or probation – infiltrate a community, lower property values, force law-abiding citizens to hide behind their doors, expose children to violence and random gun shots (murdering many) and burden an already overburdened law enforcement officers who are forced to arrest the same offenders over and over again.

Single mothers and grandmothers, whose homes maybe riddled with bullet holes, raise their children and grandchildren fearful of retaliation from gang members if they report illegal activity.

The author Gary Haugen in The Locust Effect, articulates the obvious: “The unchecked plague of violence ruins lives, blocks the road out of poverty, and undercuts development.”

My fear is that South Carolina is allowing our poorest communities to suffer the consequences of unfettered violence.

The General Assembly’s lame proposal to prevent prison overcrowding is to go soft on crime by making it harder to sentence people to prison, offering expungements to those distributing drugs, a 20-year, class C, FELONY (H.3209, recently vetoed by Governor Henry McMaster), easing up on restitution orders and making it easier to get out of jail by undermining the parole process, letting the so-called terminally ill and those over sixty-two years of age seek parole.

What is this all about?  It’s simple; it’s money.  Justice now has a price tag!  The state is not willing to lock criminals up because it costs too much to provide safety to our citizens.  So, let’s “guess” who might not be as dangerous … let out those that prison officials determine are safe risks which defies court-ordered incarceration and contracts with the victim and community.  And incidentally, all those judges our legislators now don’t trust to make the correct sentencing are appointed exclusively by the General Assembly!

Who bears the cost of softness on crime?  You and me.

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Representative Mike Pitts opined on the “hopelessness” of being incarcerated.  Hopelessness resides with citizens not being able to walk down a street, visit an ATM, stop for gas, visit a mall or sleep safely in our beds at night for fear of criminal activity.  In some neighborhoods, you don’t go out after dark.  Gun-carrying drug dealers on probation openly ply their trade in the streets and woe unto you if you get caught in their crossfire or dare report any illegal activity next door.

The state’s sentencing reform oversight committee, mostly comprised of attorneys and chaired by Senator Gerald Malloy of Darlington, spent hours on statistical information from the Pew Foundation.  One of their published “facts” was that only seven percent of inmates were paroled.  The actual facts from the S.C. Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services (SCDPPPS) reveal that the seven percent number is a fallacy.  Twelve of the 100 inmates used as baseline were not parole-eligible, so they should not be included in the calculation.  The seven percent figure also includes inmates who never had a parole hearing, further skewing the percentage.  Based on the 2016 numbers used in the PEW presentation, at that time ten of every 38 inmates who had parole hearings were granted parole.  That’s a 26 percent parole rate, not seven percent.  As of March 18, 2018, the parole rate is 38 percent.

Twisting statistics to suit the thinly veiled agenda causes many observers to doubt the validity of the reports.

Senator Malloy and his committee did an admirable job in 2010 when they reclassified violent crimes and weededout some low-level offenders that significantly reduced our state’s incarceration numbers.  However, grouping all misdemeanors as parole eligible is folly.  Most offenders imprisoned for a misdemeanor are pled down from violent crimes and have significant criminal records.  Not all offenders are equal.  The committee also overburdened PPP with numerous offenders and redefined “technical” violations so as to eliminate being sent back to prison for anything other than the most egregious acts.  Offenders have little incentive to behave while they are back in our communities freely living among law abiding
citizens.

Other suggestions articulated in H. 5155 – introduced by Pitts in the waning days of the session – contemplated the release of inmates that have reached the age of sixty-two, inmates who were terminally ill (as determined by a prison physician) and inmates with misdemeanor convictions.  Once again this ignores the fact that most incarcerated misdemeanants had their charges pleaded down from felonies.  Such a shift to the burden of proof by someone who was already the victim of the offender is a slap in the face of every crime victim in this state and nation!

Other proposals contained in H. 5155 are ridiculous: Shortening the time of probation and/or parole, burdening all county jails with graduated re-incarceration for certain parole violations; such as three days for the first violation, ten days for the second with all confinement done for the convenience of the offender on weekends.

This is an attempt by the state to shift the costs of confinement to the counties.

We deserve so much better from our elected public servants.  Ignorance is no excuse.

Laura Hudson is the executive director of the South Carolina Crime Victims’ Council (SCCVC), the chief nonprofit organization in South Carolina advocating the development of crime victims’ rights and services.

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