Article published March 27, 2007
General Assembly is ultimately responsible for state refusal to accept inmatesEditorial
Spartanburg County jail Director Larry Powers should forward a copy of his invoice for housing state inmates to the General Assembly. State lawmakers are ultimately responsible for the overcrowding in state prisons that is spilling over into county jails.
It may appear as if this fight is between local jail directors like Powers and State Department of Corrections Director Jon Ozmint, who has limited the number of prisoners counties can transfer to state custody. But the General Assembly is actually responsible.
State lawmakers have increased penalties for various crimes, establishing more lengthy mandatory sentences, which has increased the number of state prison inmates. At the same time, they have been unwilling to build new prisons or even hire the staff needed to man the newly overcrowded prisons.
This kind of policy has consequences. State prisons have become more crowded, and budget cuts have hurt the ability of the Corrections Department to deal with the crowding.
Ozmint has responded by slowing the growth in his population, limiting the number of inmates who can be transferred to his facilities by the counties.
That merely pushes some of the problem and the expense onto the counties. Powers responded by sending Ozmint a bill for $65,000, seeking reimbursement for housing prisoners who should be in state custody. It's an effective way to draw attention to the situation.
And Ozmint's tactic is particularly unfair to counties. These are state inmates who should be in state custody. County jails should be for short-term prisoners and those awaiting trial. Powers makes a good point when he claims that Ozmint is pushing his costs onto counties without the legal or constitutional authority to do so.
That authority lies with lawmakers, where the responsibility for this situation also lies. They have established the circumstances that create much of the overcrowding. Ozmint and local jail directors can push the excess inmates toward each other, battling over who will have to take them, but the General Assembly is the only body that can resolve the problem.
Lawmakers should build more prison space, and they should reserve that space for violent criminals. Other offenders should be dealt with through drug courts, treatment and alternative sentences including house arrest and restitution. It is overly expensive for the state to keep nonviolent offenders in prison. Their incarceration breaks up and impoverishes families, creating a higher social and financial expense for the state.
The problem of overcrowding will only grow worse if it isn't addressed. State and local jail directors won't be able to pay the bill for this problem. It will have to be fixed by the General Assembly.