While an additional $50 million to boost law enforcement and make state prisons safer falls short of what is needed, it’s a step in the right direction.
The increase is included in this year’s budget headed for debate in the S.C. House. The plan calls for hiring 25 agents to supervise parolees, 10 natural resource officers and 15 people at the State Law Enforcement Division.
It also would add 18 state troopers through a personnel shift. And, significantly, it includes a 3 percent raise for guards in the state’s maximum security prisons.
In addition to pay increases for prison guards, the budget also includes money to build two watch towers at Lee Correctional Institution in Bishopville, site of two hostage situations last year, and to install cameras and metal detectors at prisons statewide. Money also would be provided to pave perimeter roads around prisons, boost mental health services, replace officers’ weapons and upgrade decades-old kitchen equipment.
Money allotted in the proposed budget for those projects totals $13 million.
The focus on prisons and supervisors for parolees is significant, we think. Both are interconnected.
As a result of the sentencing reform law of 2010, fewer nonviolent offenders are being sent to prison. That has allowed the state to close 2 1/2 prisons in the past year. But as a result, the state’s most dangerous criminals have been concentrated in its meximum security prisons while the caseload for parolee supervisors has risen substantially.
In essence, the job for prison guards has become more dangerous at a time when 550 guard jobs are vacant. Currently, about 3,600 officers guard inmates in 26 prisons, down from a high of 4,325 guards in 1998.
Another result is that South Carolina’s Department of Probation, Pardon and Parole Services has one of the highest caseload rates in the nation. The per-agent caseload has risen to 93 parolees, up from 59 in 2001. And with fewer supervisors, parolees are more likely to relapse and end up back in prison.
Unfortunately, the 25 additional supervisors won’t reduce the caseloads but merely allow the department to keep up. Without the extra supervisors, the department estimates that caseloads per agent would grow to 99.
Sentencing reform was a sensible move. It reduced the need the invest in new prisons while establishing a better, more economical way to manage nonviolent offenders.
But lawmakers need to provide the resources to both supervise parolees and oversee the state’s most dangerous inmates. Maybe a pay raise for prison guards will help attract qualified people to fill the vacancies.
Investing in prison security and paying guards a decent wage is not the same as giving money to criminals. It’s a way to ensure that prison personnel can effectively do the vital job of managing those criminals.
The state is playing catch-up in overall funding for law enforcement, which suffered from budget cuts during the recession. Even with the additional money this year, the number of public safety officers still would remain below 2008 levels.
We hope as the economy improves and more money becomes available, law enforcement will remain a high priority in the budgeting process.