Let's Talk About: Criminal Justice Reform
Prison overpopulation isn't just a South Carolina problem, it's a serious national problem. Roughly one out of every 110 US adults are currently incarcerated. By comparison, our incarceration rate is nearly five times that of Western Europe. No other country is even sniffing the percentage of people we lock up.
So why is that? Well, it comes from a variety of factors and all one has to do is look at our history, particularly the past 40 years. In the 80's and 90's, a leading factor for our meteoric rise was the failed War on Drugs. More recent factors include longer sentencing guidelines and the rise of for-profit prisons. Some would also argue that the controversial "three strikes" rule has played a role. I would like to address each of these causes and then explain where I stand.
The War on Drugs was a novel idea and I'd like to think the Reagan Administration's intentions were in the right place. But the reality is that the policies from that area, many still being used today, simply did not work. It has led to a massive influx of inmates with nonviolent offenses into our penal system and drug use has not been significantly reduced.
The next big cause is the increases in harsher sentences. Studies have shows that harsher sentences (compared to similar crimes in other parts of the world) more often lead to repeat offenses. Incarceration becomes all that inmates know and it is hard for them to break that cycle.
The last factor I'll address is the introduction of for-profit prisons. Theses companies make deals with state and federal governments to accommodate their inmates. However, many times these contracts require X amount of inmates to be housed at any given time. If these quotas are not met, the government institution is usually on the hook for these beds anyways. This is incredibly costly to us taxpayers.
So what are the detriments to having so many people in jail or prison? From a human standpoint, we should naturally want to empathize and help those that are able to be rehabilitated. Everyone makes mistakes and everyone loves a good comeback story. We live in the country of second chances. From a financial standpoint, the cost of housing all of these inmates is astronomical! In South Carolina, it costs nearly $20,000 per year to house one inmate. There are roughly 20,000 inmates incarcerated right now in the state. If we can lower these numbers, we could save a ton of money that could go towards more worthy causes, such as our ridiculously underfunded education system.
With that being said, we obviously need prisons and we need to keep our communities safe. So where do we go from here?
Well, we can start by significantly reducing sentences for nonviolent crimes, specifically individual drug crimes. Nearly one-third of our state's inmates are serving time for nonviolent crimes. Many of these people are serving mandatory minimum sentences. The problem with minimum sentences is that often the time doesn't fit the crime. Every crime and sentence should be decided on its own merits.
On the other side of the spectrum are the inmates guilty of very violent crimes and the controversial "three strikes" policy. If you are unaware, South Carolina has kind of a hybrid "two strike" and "three strike" rule. Basically if you are convinced of "Serious Offenses" and/or "Most Serious Offenses", you could go to prison for life without parole for committing these crimes two or three times, depending on offense.
With all of that being said, here is what I would like to do when I get to Columbia:
The first thing I would like to do is decriminalize certain drug offenses, particularly marijuana. There are many, MANY reasons why this is a good idea, and I plan to dedicate an entire journal entry about this soon. The next thing I would do is review policies regarding minimum sentences for nonviolent crimes and see about reducing these minimums. That doesn't mean that everyone with a nonviolent crime term gets out and back on the street. It means that at least they would have an opportunity to appeal their sentence with new guidelines.
The second thing I would do is review how our tax dollars go towards our correctional system. I would like to cut unnecessary spending, but at the same time, increase spending in initiatives that could help certain inmates prosper once they are released. I'd like to expand training services to our inmates, whether it is to learn a trade or how to start a business. We need to give the proper tools to our inmates so that once they are out, they not only will be less likely to go back to prison, but will also be able to give back to society in the form of tax revenue and job creation.
Lastly, I would like to review the two and three strike policies of our state. I have always felt that the most heinous crimes should be severally punished. So from what I have gathered and understand, at least at this point, I would not change much with these laws. I am interested in getting the redeemable rehabilitated and out, which in my eyes are most of our inmates. On the other hand, I have no problem putting away the truly unredeemable for the rest of their days. That may seem cold, but I'm just being honest. But as always, I am open to discussion and reevaluation.
There is a bipartisan bill currently stuck in the House Judiciary Committee that addresses many of these deficiancies in our system (H5155). From what I have read about the bill, it seems like there is some headway being made on proper reform. I would love the opportunity to continue the work on this bill and others like it next year in Columbia.
If you like what you've read here and want to invest in our campaign, please donate by clicking here. Thank you for reading and look for future journal entries about how I'd like to help our state as your next representative!