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A prison alternative that could forge a middle ground
By Andy Brack
SC Statehouse Report

JULY 6, 2003 - - When S.C. Department of Corrections Director Jon Ozmint talks about finding alternatives for inmate sentencing, he's not talking about releasing any of the 23,606 prisoners currently in the system.

Frankly, any releases would make the former law-and-order state prosecutor, who obviously wants a political future in the state, look "soft of crime," which he's quick to point out he isn't.

What Republican Ozmint is talking about is developing a carrot-and-stick system for future prisoners that could cut prison rolls over time by as much as 5,000 prisoners - - and save upwards of $60 million. That's a big chunk of change in a system that has increasing numbers of inmates and less money to perform its obligations.

Currently, a little over of half of the prisoners in the state system are non-violent offenders, Ozmint says. A large number are perennial prisoners - - people who continue to flaunt the law when they're out, get probation over and over, and who really don't rehabilitate, Ozmint says.

But there's a group of prisoners who probably could benefit from some kind of alternative if it were available when they were sentenced.

Please note: Ozmint is not advocating to release current inmates in this nonviolent, potentially rehabilitative group.

Instead, he says there needs to be an alternative at the time of sentencing that would give incoming new inmates a taste of prison. And if they're good, they could be put back in the community under the department's control, which would reduce the prison population and cut costs.

"What this would do is make the carrot and stick immediate," Ozmint said.

Here's how a middleground sentencing program could work:

At sentencing, a judge would continue to sentence convicts to the state's prisons, as is current practice. But for those prisoners who the judge, in consultation with defense lawyers and prosecutors, thinks might benefit from alternative sentencing, the judge could recommend that the prisoner be reviewed for a special new alternative release after about six months behind bars.

That, Ozmint says, would give the inmate a taste of prison life - - and the incentive to behave to get out through the new program. After about six month, the Corrections Department would screen the inmate's record and the judge's recommendation and, if appropriate, release the inmate, who would technically remain in the custody of the Department of Corrections for the rest of the sentencing period.

Such an alternative for sentencing would be monitored electronically or through other means, Ozmint highlights.

If the inmate didn't show up for work or violated the conditions outlined in the new monitored release, he could be immediately put back in jail at the Department's discretion and without judicial review required in the current probation system.

Ozmint's proposal, which he says is being hammered out with lawmakers and should be introduced next year with bipartisan support, couldn't come at a better time for the Department.

In the just-passed fiscal year, the Department was allowed to spend more money than it was budgeted. The deficit is expected to be about $27 million, state officials said. Already in the new 2003-2004 budget, Ozmint projects expenses will be $12 million higher than revenues - - a new deficit that didn't sit too well with some budget writers.

But he points out there are more prisoners this year than last. And the department has cut $45 million in expenses over the last three years. In the current budget, it's cutting another $12.4 million - - and even so, it's still $12 million behind, the director said.

At a time when the state's prison system has been stripped of fat and is strapped for dollars, it might be wise for the Legislature to take a look at a new way to cut the number of inmates (each of whom cost $12,900 per year to accommodate) - - if there's a safe way to do it.


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