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2002-2004, South Carolina Statehouse Report. Published weekly during the S.C. legislative session. South Carolina Statehouse Report is a media project of The Brack Group, Charleston, S.C.

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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 said.

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 per year.

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 spending.

Birmingham, Alabama, provides an alternative that could save millions of dollars.

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 thing."

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.

-- 30 --

11/3: Use your vote wisely: a lesson
10/27: SC GOP to keep control of House
10/20: Black voters may be secret weapon
10/13: Talk is cheap; action takes courage
10/6: Creating sunshine to dampen negative ads
9/29: SC Set to be world leader in news research
9/22: SC Senate shift could be around corner
9/15: Gov's race about barbs, ads, not people
9/8: Shorfall may cause look at prison alternatives
9/2: Revitalize your patriotism by participating
8/25: S.C.'s fiscal situation could be a lot worse
8/18: State wetlands policy needed
8/11: The bully vs. the whiner
8/4: Noah's Ark approach to tax reform
7/28: Two-party system could be political outcome
7/21: State budget woes loom for 2 more years
7/14: Agencies can do better job on Internet
7/5: Thank a guardsman today for service
6/28: Hodges-Sanford race will be wild ride
6/21: Sanford-Peeler race's impact on GOP
6/14: Ethics reform needed now

More done than you'd think(1.23)
More education $ also means cuts (1.22)
PSC reform to come, but when?(1.21)



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