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COLUMBIA – Behind closed doors, lawyers are attempting to negotiate two of the state's thorniest and most controversial issues in talks that could lead to spending millions of tax dollars and impact services to thousands of people.

Lawyers in the two mediations are trying to resolve years-long legal disputes. One involves the development of a state child support enforcement computer system; the other stems from the care and treatment of mentally ill inmates in the state's prisons. The meetings have been going on for months, and could continue months longer.

Details of what happens in mediations are generally secret. That allows participants to be more open about their views and possible solutions, attorneys say.

Both sides agree to use a professional who moderates the talks and encourages progress toward a solution.

House Majority Leader Bruce Bannister, a Greenville lawyer, told The Greenville News he favors mediation over a protracted court battle that could end up costing taxpayers significantly more.

"If it gets into the courts, the cost, just in attorneys fees alone, makes the effort to resolve it worthwhile, knowing you are going to have in these two cases, I bet, multimillion-dollar legal fees on both sides," he said.

The long-delayed child support enforcement computer system has already cost the state tens of millions of dollars in federal penalties and legal fees.

The prison issue has stemmed from a 2006 class-action lawsuit against the state over the care and treatment of inmates with serious mental illness that resulted in a scathing, 45-page judge's order against the state in January.

A Department of Social Services official in March told senators the state and Hewlett Packard, the third vendor on the project, were in mediation over the child support enforcement system. A spokesman for HP told The News recently there were no changes yet as the result of the talks.

South Carolina remains the only state that hasn't implemented an automated child support enforcement system as required by a 1988 federal law.

The state has gone through three vendors since developing the project in the 1990s. A DSS official told senators earlier this year the agency was evaluating what it would take to complete the project and whether the agency could oversee the final work itself.

The state terminated the contract with Hewlett Packard last summer and has alleged the company failed to meet the terms of its contract, was unable to successfully test the computer system it designed and became a hindrance to the timely completion of the project.

HP has denied the allegations and blamed DSS and its officials for delays.

As of 2012, according to DSS, the state has been assessed $104 million in federal penalties for not having the system running. But because of the amounts vendors have agreed to pay, the state's total bill for penalties, prior to 2013, was about $66 million, a DSS official said then.

That, plus the $50 million state portion of the $151 million cost for the project, means the state's bill for the system could total about $116 million.

The dispute is officially before a state procurement officer, who has held court-like hearings since October to render a decision.

The legal tab thus far includes about $4 million in costs dating to 2012, an official told senators in March. The Legislature appropriated another $3 million for the project this year.

"All parties want to get this resolved and something that is workable," said Sen. Thomas Alexander, a Walhalla Republican who chairs a budget panel overseeing DSS. "I'm frustrated, I'm concerned and I'll believe it when I see it. But at the same I am cautiously optimistic that we're heading in the right direction, if they can get something resolved."

Alexander said mediation is a far better solution than trying to win a case through the procurement system and the courts, which could take years.

"Nobody is served by that," he said of a lengthy court battle.

Mediation talks in the prison issue began earlier this year and are ongoing, officials have said.

Stuart Andrews, one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the state's prison system, described the mediation talks as "productive."

"We hope to reach a point in the fall where there will be an agreement," he said.

Bryan Stirling, director of the prison system, said he's also optimistic.

"This is something that took a long time to get here but I feel like we're making progress," he said. "Both sides are putting a lot of work into this and working together to come up with solutions."

Stirling said there have been positive developments on the issue this year, including the training of 25 correctional officers in crisis intervention by the National Institute of Corrections. He said the training has already produced results.

"The first Saturday there were one or two instances where our officers were able to talk someone out of seriously harming themselves, de-escalating the situation," he said. Those officers will eventually be trained as trainers and then train other officers, he said.

In addition, he said, the department has ordered suicide prevention suits and is using $1 million in funding added last year to look at hiring more mental health staff, provide more training and look at more telepsychiatry services and equipment.

"We're also trying to contract for more mental health services throughout the department," he said.

Sen. Mike Fair, a Greenville Republican who chairs the Senate Corrections and Penology Committee, said he expects lawmakers next year to be asked by the prison system for additional dollars for personnel, especially if the mediation talks are concluded.

Sen. Marlon Kimpson, a Charleston Democrat who serves on the Senate corrections committee, said he believes the lawsuit and scrutiny by lawmakers and the media have at least produced "some heightened awareness."

"It appears some progress is being made, whether it is an outgrowth of mediation or not," he said.

"If the mediation is not resolved satisfactorily, to fully address the more substantive issues in the judge's order, then we'll be raising those questions when we return in January. And I will be calling upon the department's chief to allocate the necessary resources to be in compliance with the order."

Then-Circuit Judge Michael Baxley ruled in January that the state had violated the rights of mentally ill inmates and ordered the prison system to develop a plan of improvements within six months.

The state has appealed the order.

A report by the Treatment Advocacy Center and the National Sheriff's Association issued in April ranked South Carolina "near the bottom" in treatment of mentally ill inmates.

The report found the state ranked near bottom in the availability of public psychiatric beds, efforts to divert mentally ill from imprisonment, per capita spending on mental health "and almost every other measure of treatment for mentally ill individuals."

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