11 February 2008

Abolish Parole?

I find it interesting (and a tad ironic) that I start off with a state topic that surfaced during the Presidential campaign – abolishing parole.

Those of you with long memories will recall that one of my first posts on the old blog (and the most regrettable) was one that was particularly rough on Jon Ozmint, SC Corrections Department Director. The upshot is that after my printed apology, Jon and I have actually become friends, which is truly a testament to his willingness to forgive.

Well, as fate would have it, Jon is involved in this latest discussion over parole, or more specifically Attorney General Henry McMaster’s proposal to abolish parole.

General McMaster points to cases where parolees have committed heinous crimes, or where violent sexual predators are up for parole after mere months. He has proposed a new “Middle Court” for non-violent offenders that could keep those folks out of the prison system, focusing prison time for violent offenders and making sure they do more of the time to which they are sentenced.

In response, Mr. Ozmint points to a chronically underfunded prisons budget and asks how we will pay for the increased time for criminals behind bars. With prison guards getting hand-me-down body armor to protect themselves in dangerously overcrowded prisons, we’re one really bad meal away from disaster. We need to be looking to build another Supermax facility, and now we want to hold more folks and for longer? Will the legislative folks pay for all this?

Keep in mind, Ozmint’s been working with a bailing wire and duct tape budget that still manages to keep the prisoners fed (at the lowest per-capita cost in the nation). When I went on a tour of the prison system last summer, I was truly impressed by what this state has been able to accomplish using inmate labor (for cost savings, food production, and inmate workforce rehabilitation training purposes). Under the circumstances he’s been working under, Jon has been doing a terrific job.

Jon also looks at prisoner behavior and suggests that removing the parole option would make managing prisons more difficult, if prisoners know that they have less wiggle room for good behavior.

Here’s the rub: they’re both right.

As long as we have a criminal justice system that lets violent offenders serve miniscule sentences, only to be released to terrorize the citizenry time after time, we don’t truly have justice in our criminal system. Abolishing parole for violent crimes would be an excellent start towards real “Truth in Sentencing”, especially for the violent sexual predators that Attorney McMaster targets most often.

But none of it matters if the Prisons folks can’t get the substantial funding increases necessary to make it work.

Too often, the prison budget process has been misused, either as a political pawn in the Legislature’s ongoing war with the West Wing, or as a place for funds to be diverted from for the latest pork project or legislative slush fund.

What’s needed? Attorney General McMaster’s ideas about alternative sentencing and courts for non-violent offenders show real promise for keeping some folks out of the prison system in the first place. That’s a good start.

More than that, though, is the realization that prisons, as a critical function of state government, must be treated with greater priority by the Legislature. The full funding would be a start, including new facilities to house the growing number of violent gang members and predators that our state is incarcerating every year.

I would hope that some of the wiser heads in the Legislature could work out the compromise deal on this that gets both men what they need – tougher sentences on violent criminals and the funding to do the job right.


TIMELINESS UPDATE: Jon Ozmint has an OpEd in this morning's State newspaper.


martyn said...

Good post, Josh.

Harden said...

I don't think anyone will have a problem with abolishing parole for violent offenders. We just need to make sure that college kids picked up for dealing pot (and other non-violent offenders) don't end up turning to worse crimes because of extended time in prison.

Also, I totally agree – prisons need to be fully funded. There are bad people out there, and those that keep them under lock for the public need to be assured that they have every resource available.

passerby said...

Good balance, good reasoning, good post.

Anonymous said...

Federal parole was abolished in its entirety in 1985. There are people doing life sentences for non-violent crimes. You're a tab bit late to the game, 25 years or so.