As a member of the state Board of Probation, Parole, and Pardon Services these past five years, I have met my share of murderers, drug dealers, and rapists. Most of them have claimed they found God in prison. A startling amount have even managed to find love, but not with other prisoners, mind you. A surprising number of inmates actually come to parole hearings with their fiancés.
For all the things these prisoners have in common, there is one thing they do not share — an equally applied standard of justice. Out of the thousands of violent and non-violent offenders whose cases I have examined during my board tenure, I have observed large percentages of sentences which bear no discernible correlation to the severity of crime committed. More specifically, the most heinous crimes do not always lead to the stiffest sentences, and crimes which qualify as minor offenses do not entitle the offender to a slap on the wrist.
There is no consistent pattern of logic across the state as to how long sentences are imposed, and even less apparent forethought as to how the system of penal laws are applied. For this reason, the recent report from the S.C. Sentencing Reform Commission, which recommends a thorough reworking of our sentencing guidelines, is not only much needed, but sorely overdue.
Consider this: Over half of all inmates (52.1 percent) are in our prisons for drug or property-related offenses, according to the S.C. Department of Correction’s most recent statistics in June 2009. More than twice as many prisoners are incarcerated for these crimes — drug possession, drug trafficking, burglary, and robbery — than for homicide and assault combined (23.1 percent).
The result: Prisons are overcrowded, and paying for inmate maintenance is expensive. Despite this fact, I have witnessed first-time drug dealers who were caught with a crack rock serve more time than men who have chased after their wives with knives in their hands — and caught them.
This is not exaggeration or hyperbole.
For every inner city “hoodlum” with a certain amount of crack cocaine — a crime that might get him several years behind bars — I can show you a truly violent repeat offender whose sentence has been pled down to a “non-violent” charge and who is also serving less time. In South Carolina, we have a penal code that criminalizes drugs with a vengeance, and it currently classifies many of these crimes as violent even though no weapons or physical harm may be involved.
Conversely, many sentences for crimes involving guns and weapons can be reduced through plea bargains, wherein prosecutors can agree to pursue a lesser charge against a criminal in exchange for the offender’s promise to waive his right to a jury trial. The resulting mix makes for a strange brew wherein the length of sentence an offender actually receives depends more on the relative aggressiveness or case load of the assigned prosecutor rather than whether or not someone was ever harmed or lost their life as a result of the crime.
The reforms proposed by the S.C. Sentencing Reform Commission would help to do away with these discrepancies. It places a renewed emphasis on punishing crimes where a death occurs or where a deadly weapon is involved. It also contemplates alternative punishments for non-violent offenses, many of which only require supervision in the community rather than time in prison. This makes sense because unless new prisons are built, every space that is taken up by an incarcerated drug addict is a space that a more violent criminal could occupy.
We should give kudos to Sen. Chip Campsen and his commission for all of its work in presenting these reforms. Let’s hope that the state legislature has the political courage to enact them.