Whatever effect the credit market meltdown is having on your portfolio, your 401(k), and your career, it’s only worse for state and municipal budgets around the country, and South Carolina is no exception.

For days The Post and Courier has been filled with dire news and opinions as to the fate of state government departments, programs, and employees. State legislators recently convened to plan another round of cuts, some $488 million of the state’s $7 billion budget.

With 5,000 employees, the Department of Corrections is the largest in state government. Last year it had a budget of $410 million. Before the current round of cuts began, it was looking at a possible $23 million budget shortfall this year.

Ironically, at the same time these legislative deliberations were going on in Columbia, a meeting of scholars, law enforcement and corrections personnel, and ex-offenders was taking place at the College of Charleston on Oct. 10 to discuss the challenges of incarceration and release. Organized by Heath Hoffmann of the Department of Sociology and presented by the S.C. Reentry Initiative and the S.C. League of Women Voters, the Strategic Planning Summit on Prisoner Reentry took a hard look at how the Department of Corrections could make the public safer and save money at the same time. (Hint: It has nothing to do with slashing budgets.)

But first, some numbers: According to Hoffman, on any given day, there are over 23,000 inmates in the state’s 29 prisons. (This does not count the thousands more in municipal and county lock-ups.). The price of keeping each one of those inmates in prison for a year: $14,092 per inmate. S.C. ranks eighth in the nation in the percentage of people it locks up and has the second-lowest cost of incarceration per inmate.

Nationwide, there are about 2.3 million people — one in every 100 adults — in state, local, and federal prisons, at a cost of $62 billion in 2004. For the better part of a century, America’s incarceration rate remained fairly level, at about 100 per 100,000 residents. But, starting in the early 1970s, that rate began to climb with the onset of the War on Drugs. Since 2000, it has remained steady at about 480 per 100,000.

Eventually, 95 percent of all inmates are released. Nationwide, that’s between 650,000 and 700,000 each year.

In S.C., 13,906 people entered state prisons in 2007; that same year, 13,499 came out of state prisons. Of that number, 1,164 returned to Charleston County, 363 to Berkeley County, and 301 to Dorchester County, according to the state Department of Corrections.

Yet, in a three-year study of prisoners released in 13 states, 68 percent were arrested for a new offense within three years, 47 percent were convicted for a new crime within three years, and 25 percent were sentenced to prison for a new crime within three years.

“Is the system working?” asked North Charleston Police Chief Jon Zumalt, a panelist at the all-day seminar. “The answer is no … Twenty-eight years I’ve been doing this, and we’re still in the same cycle. South Carolina is the most dangerous state in the country. We need to do something different.”

Indeed, recently released federal crime statistics show that S.C. is — once again! — the most violent state in the U.S. But rather than try something new, politicians and the public instinctively call for more of the same, not because it makes sense, but because it feels good to say, “Lock ’em up! Throw away the key!” And politicians are always willing to play on the public’s fear of crime by calling for more prisons and longer sentences.

Fear of crime is the perfect tool of the demagogue. Today, Attorney General Henry McMaster is laying the groundwork for his 2010 gubernatorial campaign with a highly controversial plan to abolish parole in S.C.

Among seminar participants, there were new and innovative ideas to stop the revolving door of S.C. prisons. Ashley Pennington of the Ninth Circuit Solicitor’s Office called for creating a holistic program to follow convicted felons after release. It would be composed of law enforcement, corrections, and pardon, probation and parole personnel, linked by joint training and computers. Surprisingly, nothing like this currently exists in the Palmetto State.

Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said that private businesses should be involved in any prison release reform since they’ll be the source of jobs for newly released inmates. Rep. David Mack III said that more education behind bars prepares inmates for the future.

Of course, all of these plans — and the other ideas presented that day — require money, the very thing in most short supply these days. They also require planning, patience, and hope in the future — three other commodities historically lacking in this state. That’s why you are not likely to see progress in South Carolina’s ex-offender reentry program anytime soon.

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