Nonviolent offenders could avoid prison through an alternate court system being pushed by Attorney General Henry McMaster as both a better way to rehabilitate people and save the state money.
Too often, McMaster said, people put in prison for offenses ranging from gambling to drug possession are turned into hardened criminals by their time behind bars.
But a combination of counseling, drug treatment, school, work and restitution -- with requirements varying for each offender's problems -- could change their lives, he said.
"Some people just need a second chance," the state's top prosecutor told a House panel last week. "It's very expensive to keep people in prison, and that money can be best spent on something else."
The panel postponed voting on the idea. More people are set to testify this week.
Under the proposal, prosecutors could recommend the so-called middle court for those sentenced on drug and other nonviolent crimes. McMaster, a Republican, said he thinks it will ensure prisons are filled with more violent offenders who need to be there.
The separate court system, involving volunteer judges, would replace the hodgepodge of drug courts around the state. All but two of the state's 16 judicial circuits already have drug courts, but each is different and some are only for juveniles, McMaster said.
It's unclear how many people would benefit from the alternative court, how much the new program would cost and how much it could save the state in the long run.
Up to 50 people a year go through each of the state's drug courts. But the middle court would have at least one program in each circuit and expand who's eligible beyond drug crimes.
McMaster said the new system would cost several million dollars a year to administer, mostly for counselors. But, he said, that's "chicken feed" compared with the money saved in prison costs -- at least $12,000 per person per year.
Last year, the state spent more than $14,000 per inmate, according to the Corrections Department.
Many state and national studies show that alternative courts reduce the chance that offenders will be charged again.
"Drug courts reduce recidivism, reduce drug use and save jurisdictions huge amounts of money," said Carson Fox, operations director for the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.
He said many of the programs across the nation cover crimes other than drugs. Research showing they work has increased their popularity. The first drug court started in Miami in 1989. Five years later, there were just 12. There are more than 2,000 now, with some in every state, Fox said.
Expanding the courts statewide would put South Carolina "on the leading edge," he said.
To be eligible under South Carolina's proposal, offenders can get into the program only after they have been convicted and sentenced and they can't have a violent record. The victim or law enforcement would have to agree as would the circuit judge handling the case.
McMaster thinks the threat of being dropped from the program and sent to serve their time would be a strong incentive for participants to do well in the 12- to 18-month program.
About 48 percent of South Carolina's nearly 24,000 inmates are in prison for nonviolent offenses and have no prior conviction for a violent crime, according to the state Corrections Department.
State prisons director Jon Ozmint applauds the alternative court idea as smart and long overdue. South Carolina's prison population is growing by 300 to 400 inmates a year, with prisons holding 1,603 inmates over capacity as of last month, according to the agency.
"The new alternative sentences might allow us to delay construction of new prisons or prevent a federal court from ordering mandatory releases when we become too overcrowded to operate safely," Ozmint said.
But Ozmint opposes another part of the bill McMaster's pushing -- a no-parole proposal the attorney general has advocated for years that would require most inmates to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence.
In 1995, the Legislature took away parole possibilities for many violent crimes that carried maximum sentences of 20 years or more. McMaster wants to include most other crimes, including some misdemeanors, so that "sentences mean what they say."
"Even judges don't know what their sentence means," McMaster said. "It breeds disrespect and distrust."
Ozmint argues the truth-in-sentencing idea would further overcrowd prisons and cost taxpayers millions to build more, while also taking away an incentive for inmates to behave.
After the 1995 law that required offenders to serve 85 percent of their sentences, the penalties handed down by judges in nondrug cases decreased five to 54 months depending on the crime, according to the Corrections Department.
But the actual time prisoners spent behind bars increased by three to 64 months.
Still, McMaster wants legislators to pass both proposals together this year. Ozmint said the alternative court should be approved first, then studied to determine its effect on prison overcrowding.
"We have no way of predicting how often prosecutors and judges will use the middle court option," Ozmint said.
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