Article published April 3, 2007
Rising inmate population needs long-term solutionEditorial
State officials wringing their hands over prisons bulging with inmates are a day late and a dollar short. They should have listened when state Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal spoke to the General Assembly last year about the critical need for sentencing reform.
The chairman of the Senate Corrections and Penology Committee and Department of Corrections director are expected to meet with Gov. Mark Sanford's staff this week to talk about solutions to South Carolina's overcrowded prisons and the impact state quotas are having on county jails. They will discuss a $4.6 million plan that would enable the state to meet its obligation to accept inmates who belong in the state prison system rather than in county jails.
That is a short-term fix but one that most likely can't be avoided to solve the current problem. The state should not force already overcrowded county jails to house inmates who, by law, belong to the state.
The legislature will need to appropriate more money to the Department of Corrections to find more beds for its rising prison population, but that is not the long-term solution. It is going to take a change in the way the state handles criminal sentences.
Addressing the legislature last year, Toal cautioned lawmakers on the drain that a six-fold increase in prison population over the past three decades would have on state and local resources. South Carolina's prisons have 3,000 more inmates than they did eight years ago. During that period, state funding and the number of prison employees have been significantly cut.
Limiting the number of inmates the state system will accept is not the answer. That move only created a dangerous situation for already overcrowded county jails. The state should be equipped for long-term incarcerations, meaning lawmakers must act to remedy the current situation, but the long-term solution lies with finding a better way to handle some criminal sentences.
Toal addressed the legislature last year on the common-sense need to reserve longer prison sentences for violent criminals and to shorten sentences of nonviolent offenders.
Forced now to consider a $4.6 million fix for an overcrowded and under-funded prison system, perhaps lawmakers will heed Toal's message. They should go to work on a long-term solution rather than forever looking for more prison space.