COLUMBIA -- South Carolina's prisons director said Tuesday he's drafted plans that call for the early release of nonviolent inmates as a last resort in dealing with a $39 million budget deficit.
Corrections Department Director Jon Ozmint's problems have come from years of underfunding prisons exacerbated by the state slashing $1 billion from spending by various agencies since July as the recession slammed the $7 billion budget.
Ozmint told the state's budget oversight board about the shortfall as a Senate subcommittee discussed increasing state cash reserves to deal with shortfalls and budget writers prepared to meet. Last week, the House Ways and Means Committee approved a spending plan that uses about $1 billion in federal stimulus cash, mostly for colleges and health care programs.
That proposal puts more than $45 million more into Corrections' $304 million budget to avoid a deficit for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Ozmint said he could take care of the current fiscal year's shortfall by shuttering four prisons, but that would leave inmates living three to a cell, jeopardize safety and likely bring federal intervention that could force early release of prisoners.
The budget oversight board agreed to let the prison system run a deficit that could be offset partly by an unspecified amount of money that could be transferred from the Department of Motor Vehicles and the rest by a rainy day fund with $102 million to cover state budget shortfalls.
The adult prison system isn't alone in budget woes. The board approved allowing the Department of Juvenile Justice to operate with a $7.5 million deficit.
Juvenile Justice has shuttered its five group homes, ended after school and intervention programs and forced more children into centralized facilities and out of communities closer to their homes. Director Bill Byars has said he can't cut enough to balance his budget without running up against court agreements.