Originally created 10/20/06

Official criticizes sentencing plans



COLUMBIA - South Carolina's prisons could become more difficult to manage if most inmates are required to serve 85 percent of their sentence, Corrections Department director Jon Ozmint told a Senate panel studying the state's criminal justice system Thursday.

Currently only convicted felons sentenced to 20 years or more must serve at least 85 percent of their sentence, but state Attorney General Henry McMaster has proposed that criminals sentenced for other crimes - such as attempting a lewd act on a minor younger than 16 or vulnerable adult abuse - be held to that same sentencing standard.

Mr. Ozmint said that proposal doesn't give inmates any incentive to behave.

If split into two groups, Mr. Ozmint said, the group of inmates that could earn upward of 20 percent off its sentence would be better behaved than a group that could only earn up to 15 percent off.

"I don't find anything outrageous about our assertion - which is reality for us, in managing a prison," Mr. Ozmint said.

Mr. McMaster told the panel last month he wanted to require most offenders in South Carolina serve at least 85 percent of their sentences.

But in a letter to panel members, Mr. Ozmint proposed reducing the state's truth-in-sentencing requirements to 70 percent from 85 percent. If that happened, the state "would gain the additional advantages of slowing the growth rate in our prison population and creating more incentive for good behavior and rehabilitation," Mr. Ozmint wrote. "Our prison system and our state would be safer, because assaults and disciplinary problems would decrease and more inmates would participate in rehabilitation programs before release back into society."

"The attorney general disagrees," said McMaster spokesman Trey Walker. The manipulation of these percentages "has caused a crisis. ... No one believes sentences mean what they say anymore. And that's why we need accountability and transparency in the system."

But that's not the only issue the two disagree over.

Mr. Ozmint doesn't want to abolish parole, which Mr. McMaster has set as the primary goal of his second term. He is running unopposed in November.

"Eliminating parole will increase the rate of growth in prisons," Mr. Ozmint wrote. "In every state where parole has been eliminated, in whole or in part, this has been demonstrated."

That's not true, Mr. Walker said. He cited results from Virginia, where parole was abolished in 1995, in a report by the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission.