COLUMBIA (AP) - Senate lawmakers say legislative proposals for reforming South Carolina's prisons are urgent and require more work and public input.
Members of the Senate Corrections and Penology Committee met Thursday to discuss prison reform bills but said they need more time before presenting the measures to the full Senate.
One of the proposals that occupied the majority of the lawmakers' discussions would allow early release and community supervision for inmates convicted of crimes not eligible for parole, who have completed 65 percent of their sentences and do not have disciplinary problems.
Committee Chairman Sen. Shane Martin said the bill would probably be his committee's most important legislation this year and said there's too much at risk to move quickly. The Spartanburg lawmaker said he's received several complaints from the public and some solicitors concerned about which crimes are eligible for reduced time but said the overall intention of the bill is good.
"I think our interest is to put our heads together to get it right," Martin said. "It's not normal for us to take testimony on full committee, but there's a lot at stake."
Author of the legislation, Democratic Sen. Karl Allen, said the bill is intended to provide incentives for inmates by giving them a method to earn their way out as well as address the understaffing problems in state correctional facilities by reducing the population of inmates.
"There's no sense in keeping them there for those years when we can use that money to attract correctional officers and make it safe for everybody; so it's a win-win," said Allen. "Just about every lawsuit and every death that comes to our attention indicates that understaffing is a contributing factor; so the state of South Carolina must act and act now."
The Greenville lawmaker said his goal is to prepare rehabilitating inmates to be contributing members of society instead of "warehousing" them in understaffed prisons. Co-founder of Hearts for Inmates Erica Felder has attended several hearings addressing prison reform and said she supports legislation that provides hope for inmates because it gives them something to work toward.
"Everyone is impacted by incarceration," Felder said. "This is something that is not just going to benefit the inmates, but something the state will benefit from."
Members of the General Assembly have made a concerted effort to address growing problems in the state prison system, more so after the Lee Correctional Institute riot last year that left seven inmates dead and 22 injured in what officials said started over gang territory, money and contraband.
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