New numbers are in estimating a South Carolina law passed in 2010 has saved almost $500 million while also reducing crime. The law is the 2010 Omnibus Crime Reduction and Sentencing Reform Act.
A recent study by the Clemson Institute for Economic and Community Development found that the law has also resulted in 982 new jobs with an economic impact of $37 million. The law diverted people away from prison and those people then got jobs and contributed to the state’s economy.
The law diverts most non-violent criminals away from prison, instead putting them under the supervision of the Department of Probation, Parole, and Pardon Services. At the same time, the law gives longer sentences to violent criminals. The combination has led to a decrease in crime in the state.
Before the law was passed, it was expected that the state’s prison population would be about 29,000 by now, based on past growth. But instead, with the law in place, the prison population is just above 20,000, says Bryan Stirling, Department of Corrections director. "If we had 29,000 people, we would've had to build probably three or four more prisons right now at a considerable cost to build a prison, and I'm not sure we'd be able to staff them," he says. Not building those prisons has saved an estimated $491 million.
Instead, the Department of Corrections has closed six prisons since 2010. The state’s imprisonment rate has dropped from 11th in the nation to 20th, Stirling says. "We're seeing a decrease in the crime rate. We're seeing a decrease in the recidivism rate. People aren't coming back to prison after they leave."
The Department of Probation, Parole, and Pardon Services has taken on a bigger caseload because fewer people convicted of crimes are being sent to prison. But the law also changed how the agency handles minor infractions, which has also saved money and reduced the prison population.
Director Jerry Adger says, "They're on probation. They can't afford to pay their fees or they don't show up for a visit or something like that and we would revoke them, send them back to court and they ultimately end up back in the prison system, not for committing another crime, just for not being able to meet some conditions. And so because of sentencing reform, the mandate is that you don't do that anymore. Let's approach technical violations a different way and so we embrace that.”
He says now the only ones going back to prison are ones who commit more crimes.
The law also led to more alternatives to prison, like Jobs Not Jail, a program run by the South Carolina Center for Fathers and Families. Executive director Pat Littlejohn says it keeps fathers from being sent to jail or prison for not paying child support. "Last year, they paid over $1 million in child support, and if those same men had been incarcerated that number would have been zero. And also, when you calculate the cost of that number of people having been incarcerated for six months, that would've cost nearly $10 million,” she says. "It costs less and we have better results, so it's one of those situations of, this is a no-brainer."
Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Hartsville, spearheaded the push for the bill in 2010. He says, "I fully expected this result, and in fact Gov. Sanford, when he signed the bill into law, he told me that this is probably one of the most important pieces of legislation he would sign in his tenure. But we won't know the full effect for 20 years."
Other states have seen South Carolina’s success and are adopting similar laws.