Shortfall may force
SC to seek prison options
By Andy Brack
S.C. Statehouse Report
SEPT. 8, 2002 - - Consider a baker whose bread didn't rise one
day. On the next day if he again ended up with flat bread, he'd
probably figure something was wrong with the recipe. If he baked
the third day without adjusting the recipe, he surely would be out
of business soon.
A new report suggests South Carolina's current recipe of dealing
with convicts might be half-baked in lean budget times. From 1985
to 2000, the state increased spending on corrections by 113 percent
- - from $202 million to $431 million, according to the Justice
Policy Institute. In the same time frame, spending for higher education
grew by 23 percent - - from $634 million to $804 million, the report
In other words, as South Carolina slightly raised the rate of spending
on colleges, it doubled the rate of prison spending. Figures from
the Department of Corrections bear out the increase. Today, the
state houses more than 22,000 inmates at a cost of just over $17,000
per inmate per year. Fifteen years ago, the cost to maintain the
state's prison population of about 11,000 inmates was about $12,000
It's easy to connect the dots of what this trend means for the
future: unless something dramatic occurs, spending on prisons will
increase in South Carolina.
The concept of corrections alternatives, however, isn't mainstream
yet in South Carolina. In the past, politicians have loved the media
benefits of a lock-em-up-and-throw-away-the-key approach to dealing
with criminals. But a signal things might be changing came in May
with the establishment of the state Task Force on Corrections. By
March 2003, the 19-member commission is charged with issuing a report
that is expected to include alternatives.
An even more pressing impetus for a change in the way leaders look
at corrections may come from the state's tight fiscal situation.
Next year when legislators have to find money to make up $150 million
in debt, generate a rainy day fund and pay for better secondary
education, they might want to look at ways to rein in corrections
Birmingham, Alabama, provides an alternative that could save millions
The city uses a community corrections approach that stems from
a federal pilot program called "Breaking the Cycle." Whenever
people in Birmingham are arrested on any felony charge, they are
required to participate in a drug-testing program as a bond requirement.
Everyone is tested, not just drug offenders, says Foster Cook, director
of the city's Treatment Alternatives to Street Crime program.
The result? Since 1997, more than 19,000 defendants have "graduated"
from the program, according to a February article in Reader's Digest.
Because drug use is correlated with crime, the city's serious crime
rate dropped 33 percent in the last five years. Even more interesting,
the city saved $50 million in costs for having to build a new jail
because the jail population dropped substantially, Cook said.
The tough early intervention program combined with a special drug
court and treatment is a systemic approach that stops the cycle
of criminal behavior because Birmingham deals with the problem -
- drugs - - that causes crime, Cook said.
The city's approach now is getting attention by Alabama lawmakers,
who face dealing with an expensive lack of prison space statewide.
"In Alabama, we've all come to the consensus there's a smarter
way of doing business," Cook said. "Doing it is another
With its new Task Force on Corrections, South Carolina now has
an opportunity to move beyond political rhetoric and implement alternatives
that will save money, reduce crime, treat problems and steer people
to become productive citizens.
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