When we sentence a criminal to 15 years in prison, should we have a reasonable expectation they’re going to serve about 15 years? That’s the question that Sunday’s editorial tackles:
When state legislators begin their new session in January they’ll be met by solicitors from across the state who want the sentences that criminals receive to be same sentences that they serve. It doesn’t make sense, the S.C. Solicitors Association says, to sentence somebody to prison for 10 years if we have every expectation they’ll be out in 2.5 years. To that end, they hope to end early release programs, as well as parole and credit for good behavior or work while in prison.
South Carolina already has a similar law for violent offenses that merit a sentence of 20 years or more, but solicitors want to extend it to cover all prison sentences. This push for truth in sentencing appeals to our common sense. After all, why sentence a criminal to a decade behind bars if nobody – not the prosecutor, not the defense attorney, not the judge, often not even the criminal – believes that the number is really true? Nevertheless the proposal does bring with it some concerns, though they’re concerns that solicitors say could be overcome. If they’re right – and the proposal deserves close scrutiny by legislators to ensure that they are – the change would be welcome.
Top of those worries would be adding to already bulging prisons. The number of inmates in S.C. facilities has grown more than 800 percent over the past 40 years, while the state’s population as a whole has grown only about 80 percent. Abolishing early release rules could only exacerbate the problem, though current solicitors don’t believe it would.
Fourteenth Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone told the Hilton Head Island Packet last month that making sentences more accurate would itself deter crime and lead to fewer inmates. That doesn’t seem particularly likely. For one, we’re not so sure that so many criminals are paying attention to legislative changes that this promised deterrence of new sentencing guidelines would be borne out. Secondly, nobody commits a crime expecting to be caught, so the sentences that their misdeeds could carry are probably not a high priority in criminals’ decision-making process.
Our own solicitor, Greg Hembree, offered a more practical solution this past week: Reduce the sentences handed down to conform to what they already are in reality. If defendants are now being sentenced to eight or 10 years, with everybody knowing that it really means perhaps two or three years behind bars, then just trim the sentences after a truth in sentencing law passes to maintain the same time behind bars that inmates were already serving.
Hembree’s solution sounds like it could work, but it would take a concerted effort by solicitors and judges to seek shorter sentences. And that effort may not be the most popular in an environment where being seen as soft on crime is always a political no-no. It would likely take months or years of patient explanations to pacify victims who complain that their attacker or burglar received only two years, while the same crime a few years back earned a 10-year sentence.
Also worrying is the effect that abolishing current credits for good behavior could have on the behavior of inmates – and therefore the safety of prison guards. Hembree, who may soon be among the legislators debating this proposal, points to the state’s current truth in sentencing law as a model that resolves this concern. That law still allows some modest leeway in release times to encourage positive actions such as good behavior among violent inmates.
How has this worked in other states? Virginia is an example often cited by truth in sentencing proponents. After abolishing parole in 1995 and lengthening the sentences for violent offenders, the state actually saw its inmate population growth slow down. While the state had braced for a dramatic increase in inmates, in fact the growth slowed after the change. In the decade before the law passed, the state saw a 154 percent increase in the inmate population. In the decade after, it was 31 percent. But one large reason for that difference may have less to do with truth in sentencing than risk management.
Virginia coupled its passage of tougher sentencing rules for violent offenders with a program that seeks to calculate the risk that criminals pose to society. The state then used those assessments to divert more nonviolent, low-risk offenders into prison alternatives, such as probation, local jails, halfway houses, drug rehabilitation centers or community service.
South Carolina has already laid the groundwork for a similar system, put into place with the 2010 sentencing reform act. And in fact we may already be seeing the fruits of that change, as the state’s inmate population has fallen by more than 1,300 individuals in the past two years, the largest decrease in the past 40 years. Will expanding the state’s truth in sentencing provisions help reduce recidivism and repeat offenders even more? Perhaps. But the largest benefit may simply be restoring certainty and accuracy to our judicial system.
A smart man said long ago that we should simply let our yes be yes and our no be no. If there’s anywhere this standard of clear honesty and integrity should hold true, it’s in the system we rely upon to mete out justice.