This commentary was originally posted in The Post and Courier.
The efforts of South Carolina’s Sentencing Reform Oversight Committee position the state to be a frontrunner in ending mass incarceration. The justice reform efforts dating back to 2010 have begun to pay off as policymakers envisioned, with the state’s prison population having already declined by 8.5 percent. It’s also encouraging that state Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington, will be heading up a task force to explore further reforms.
South Carolina has moved many individuals with a drug conviction to treatment rather than prison, shortened mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent crimes, and given judges greater discretion at sentencing. These reforms have occurred without harm to public safety and amid continued crime declines. The violent crime rate has declined by 37 percent in the state since 2003.
Still, efforts to achieve significant reductions in the prison population will be thwarted if reform strategies focus too narrowly on sentences for those convicted of low-level offenses. Nearly 30 percent of the prisoners in the state have a sentence of 20 years or more; it is unlikely that they will benefit from reforms currently underway. The Department of Corrections also reports that more than 2,159 people are serving life sentences, representing one in 10 prisoners.
The growth in the life-sentenced population in the state is due to multiple factors, including a growing reliance on life without parole (LWOP) sentences for non-homicide crimes, now totaling more than 9 percent of such cases. Overall, the population serving LWOP doubled between 2003 and 2016.
At 48 years of age, Jeffrey Evans is incarcerated in South Carolina for the rest of his life because of multiple armed robberies and burglaries linked to his substance abuse disorder. His first conviction and incarceration took place in 1994 at age 25, but after release he returned to his previous destructive behavior. No one was physically harmed in Evans’ crimes but because of his prior convictions his prison sentence was enhanced to life without the possibility of parole. Though he committed serious offenses, a focused attempt to treat his underlying addiction while incarcerated or in the community likely would have been a better investment than a life term of imprisonment with no chance for release.
Aside from the share of non-homicide offenses resulting in LWOP in South Carolina, it is also noteworthy that young people comprise 6.5 percent of the life-sentenced population. Recent thinking in both the scientific and legal communities has recognized that juveniles are less mature intellectually, and thus less culpable for their crimes than adults, but in South Carolina 139 individuals are nevertheless serving life terms for crimes committed in their youth. Alarmingly, three-fourths of these individuals are African American, representing an even greater racial imbalance than among adults sentenced to life.
At a time of fiscal restraint taxpayers in South Carolina spend about $20,000 annually per incarcerated person. For individuals serving life in prison this figure approaches a million dollars in total.
Supporters of lengthy prison sentences argue that some crimes are so serious that rehabilitation is unattainable, or that lifelong punishment “fits the crime.” But research tells us that even those who commit serious crimes frequently “age out” of crime and are far less likely to reoffend after 15 to 20 years in prison, enough time to mature and engage in rehabilitation. In a report by the National Research Council, the nation’s top criminologists concluded that long sentences serve little public safety purpose and are instead maintained only to reinforce the retributive goal of corrections.
There is growing urgency across the country to reduce the prison population and South Carolina has taken bold, bipartisan actions to do so. Still, sentencing reforms for low-level offenses are frequently paired by policymakers with the laws that preserve or expand harsh penalties for serious and violent crimes. This strategy has been pursued without adequate consideration of public safety research about trends in engagement in crime and recidivism.
South Carolina has started down the road to criminal justice reform — a beginning, but it is a long road. A legislative package designed to accelerate the state’s progress ought to include consideration of reforms to long-term sentences.
Dr. Ashley Nellis is a researcher for the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice think tank based in Washington, D.C. She is the author of Still Life: America’s Increasing Use of Life and Long-Term Sentences.