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By Robert Kittle

South Carolina's prison population has dropped 2.8 percent this year, saving taxpayers $5.2 million.

The state Sentencing Reform Oversight Committee says the drop is a result of a 2010 sentencing reform law that toughened sentences for violent criminals while giving non-violent criminals alternatives to prison.

The number of prisoners has decreased by more than 2,000 since 2010. But that means the number of criminals on probation has gone up by more than 2,000. The state Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services is asking lawmakers for an additional $1.8 million in next year's budget to hire more parole agents.

One pilot program the department is using with some of the non-violent criminals now on probation is a re-entry center in Columbia. There, participants can get drug or alcohol counseling, get their GEDs, learn job interview skills and get help finding a job, and learn life skills like anger management and conflict resolution.

Part of the program teaches participants how to stop thinking like criminals. "We try to get them to change the way they think about society as a whole, the way they think about approaching jobs. For instance, some of them, they've never worked," says Eloise Jamison, employment coordinator at the center.

Instead of costing taxpayers money by being in prison, these participants are paying taxes because they have jobs.

Plans are to open a similar re-entry center in Spartanburg in January. Rehabilitation counselor Carol Rice says, "We are actually assisting them with becoming productive members back in society, because we know if we can get them employed and we can actually help to rehabilitate them there is a possibility they will not go out and re-offend."

The center does not house anyone who's on probation; participants go there for classes or counseling.

PPP spokesman Pete O'Boyle says the number of people on probation or parole who commit new crimes has not gone up, even though a lot more criminals are being put on probation instead of going to prison.

And according to state crime statistics from the State Law Enforcement Division, the violent crime rate in South Carolina has gone down since the sentencing reform law was passed in 2010, although there's no way to say how much can be attributed to the law.

In 2009, the year before the sentencing reform law, the violent crime rate in SC was 67.59 per 10,000 residents. In 2011, that was down to 59.69.

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