How South Carolina can also do its part on criminal justice reform 

Small Crimes, Big Reform

Criminal justice reform generally takes a back burner to most issues. Think about it: not much substantial has changed at the federal level since the Clinton administration, even as the incarcerated population increased from just over 1 million in the '90s to nearly 2.5 million in 2010.

But in a rare bipartisan move, Congress finally passed the First Step Act last month and President Donald Trump signed it into law on Dec. 21.

The FSA benefits mainly drug and non-violent federal offenders, which includes roughly 180,000 of the over 2 million imprisoned people.

So, what does that mean for South Carolina and criminal justice reform at home?

The FSA only impacts federal correctional institutions, four of which are in South Carolina, with a total inmate population just shy of 6,000.

What it does mean is that South Carolina lawmakers can continue expanding on their successful Omnibus Crime Reduction and Sentencing Reform Act of 2010 and 2017 expungement bill.

During 2009–2010, South Carolina's inmate population peaked at over 24,000. Since the Omnibus Crime Reduction and Sentencing Reform Act, that population was reduced 14 percent by 2016, saving taxpayers nearly $500 million while continuing a downward trend in crime rates and recidivism, according to a Pew study last year.

South Carolina also has drug courts and re-entry programs, and the expungement bill passed in 2017 cleared first-time drug offenders and allowed people convicted of misdemeanors to have their records cleared. This has all allowed thousands of peoplea path to gainful employment.

What more can be done? As the South Carolina House of Representatives reconvenes this week, new chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Rep. Peter McCoy (R, Charleston) who co-sponsored House bill 5155 last session should immediately renew his push, and even expand on it.

As written, the bill would increase the amount of early release credit given to drug and nonviolent offenders, allowing them to cut their sentences if they meet certain thresholds for good behavior, work, and education. Those changes would give the courts more leeway in sentencing and more flexibility to parole committees to accept lower automatic release percentages at their discretion. The courts should also be empowered to help those with illnesses and drug-related problems instead of incarcerating them. McCoy's bill should also include provisions to allow veterans to advance out of the prison system and apply their training to the real world.

South Carolina is the ninth fastest growing state in the U.S. and we have to make strategic investments to improve our workforce. That doesn't include a better education system, or throwing more taxpayer dollars at a lack of workforce. There are thousands of inmates incarcerated for nonviolent or drug offenses that either already have workforce training, are being trained through the system, or have the desire to get back into the workforce.

South Carolina has come a long way in criminal justice reform, but to face the challenges of the 21st century, we have to come up with new ideas. Continuing to reform the criminal justice system is one of them.


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