Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Southern states pushing de-incarceration envelope

Recent legislation in other southern states offer possibilities for sentencing reform that perhaps could be replicated by the 83rd Texas Legislature if they can muster the will to reduce corrections spending. In South Carolina, reported The State, the Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services was previously "focused on punishing offenders who did not follow the rules. Sentencing reform forced the department to reward offenders who did follow the rules. Now, offenders can reduce their supervision by 20 days for every month that they follow the rules. A shorter sentence means the offender pays less money in supervision fees. In some cases, he or she even earns a refund."

The Palmetto State reforms also focused on risk assessment and better matching of services to risks:
The probation department now assesses all offenders to determine their risk for reoffending. If an offender has no family support, the department will try to get that person involved in a church, if they are religious, or in some other support group for encouragement.

In Spartanburg County, probation officers doubled the rate of youthful offenders completing probation successfully just by assigning each one a counselor, according to Jeff Harmon, the agency’s Spartanburg agent in charge.

The department still punishes offenders. But prison is now the last option.

Now, if offenders break the rules, they could have to pick up trash on the highway, report to their probation officers more frequently or spend a weekend in jail – what Department of Corrections director Bill Byars refers to as “a refresher course.”

“Frankly, we have had to relearn the business of probation and parole,” said Kela E. Thomas, the probation department’s director.

It appears to be working.

In 2012, the agency revoked the probations of 3,323 former inmates – 1,461 fewer than in 2010.
The changes in South Carolina  have already shifted the mix of prisoners incarcerated in the state:
Before sentencing reform, the prison population was spilt about 50-50 between violent and nonviolent inmates. Today, 62 percent of inmates are incarcerated for violent offenses, said John Carmichael, the Corrections Department’s deputy director for programs and services.

That shift has allowed the department to focus more of its resources on its most dangerous inmates.

Incarcerating fewer nonviolent inmates means that lower security prisons are operating at only 75 percent to 80 percent of their capacity. That has allowed the Corrections Department to shift resources to higher security prisons, which are operating at 94 percent to 97 percent of their capacity.

“We’re trying to make them safer,” Carmichael said.
In Texas, offenders convicted of violent offenses make up 55% of inmates, compared to 62% in post-reform South Carolina.

Meanwhile, via this AP story I learned of Georgia's Special Council on Criminal Justice Reform, which produced this report (pdf) suggesting various de-incarceration initiatives. According to AP, "There are new penalty provisions for certain crimes, and the elements of other crimes have changed so that some that used to be felonies are now misdemeanors." The Peach State also reduced the level of supervision for successful probationers: "Probationers are put on an administrative caseload after two years, and the council's report says only 18 percent of those unsupervised probationers are rearrested, as opposed to 60 percent of active probationers."

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