Cons or kids?

The War on Drugs is making South Carolina kids stupid.

According to this report in today’s local paper, our local school district is about to face the possibility of increasing class sizes and eliminating some AP classes.

Why? No money. The state’s budget is a right mess and it that means education funding is going to take a hit.

Here’s a clip from the story:

State funding per student through the Education Finance Act would fall to $1,630, less than the 1995-96 school year, Greenville district spokesman Oby Lyles said. The district already has cut $47 million from its budget over the past two years.

Now, there is a lot of blame to go around. A quick check of a database shows spokesman Oby Lyles makes $121,947 per year, which in this part of the world is no small chunk of change. By comparison, a middle school principal I know makes $93,000 a year, or $28,947 less than a guy who takes calls from the media about how we can’t afford to keep educating the kids. Life’s funny, huh?

While that may stick in your craw a bit, let’s put the blame on something a little more egregious.

A South Carolina commission just released a report that should make you think twice about whether you really believe all drug offenders should go to prison.

Chew on this: Twenty years ago, South Carolina prisons housed 473 people who had been convicted for drug-related crimes. At the time, that was six percent of the total prison population. In 2009, there were 4,682 people in prison cells on drug offenses. That number makes up 20% of our current South Carolina prison population.

Do the math. The percentage of total inmates in prison for drug offenses has more than tripled in 20 years. A full 1/5 of everybody in prison in South Carolina is there because of a drug conviction.

Someone who is not from around here might look at that number and think, “Holy smokes, South Cackalacki has a real drug problem!” In fact, the increase is a result of a two-decade, expensive, multi-pronged drug battle that nobody can win. The laws have changed, the enforcement has increased, and the sentencing for drug crimes has become even more harsh.

At $14,000 a head annually, that means South Carolina is spending $65,548,000 to take care of drug offenders. That amount is more than the entire corrections budget was 25 years ago.

No one believes that every one of those drug offenders should be set free. Some of them are a real scourge on the community, but a great many of those people are low-level offenders and/or people convicted of crimes involving marijuana. And more of them are entering the system every day. From the commission’s report:

Research and data show that the increase in national prison populations was driven not by an increase in crime, but by state decisions to put more low-risk, non-violent offenders behind bars, to increase prison terms for violent and non-violent offenders alike, and to neglect community corrections and reentry programs, so a significant number of parole and probation violators return to prison.

The Corrections Department is expecting the number of inmates to go up dramatically in the coming years, such that it will have to build an entirely new prison at a cost to the state of $317 million. That will be a necessity unless something changes.

In a moment of rather surprising enlightenment, the bipartisan commission in Columbia came up with a conclusion you might not expect to come from this state.

“Prison space should be reserved for violent criminals and those with violent tendencies. Research shows that low-risk offenders, those who pose minimal risk to the public, are more effectively managed outside the prison system. After an in-depth analysis of the state’s sentencing and corrections data, the Commission has developed recommendations that will reduce recidivism while also reducing the costs of corrections…

With such a significant cost facing South Carolina taxpayers, the question to answer is whether building more prisons to accommodate low-risk, non-violent offenders is the smartest use of tax payers’ money to protect public safety. The opinion of the Commission is that it is not.

And, with that, the commission recommends that the sentencing guidelines for non-violent crimes (read: property and drug offenses) be changed such that a lot of offenders don’t end up in prison when they could be better rehabbed elsewhere and at less cost.

Of course, that makes too much sense, right?

One of the biggest problems with getting this kind of stuff done is convincing lawmakers to pass any laws or amendments to laws that seem soft on drugs. First you have lawmakers who love pandering to a conservative base that still believes “Reefer Madness” is a true-to-life documentary. Then you have the other lawmakers who are terrified of being labeled “soft on crime” during the next election cycle. Like the already-rung bell, there’s no chance of undoing what’s been done in South Carolina as it relates to drug laws and sentencing guidelines.

But I wonder if any lawmaker could have some success in saying the following:

“I am a conservative and I believe in conservative principles. I believe we should not spend more than we earn. I believe that our children are our greatest resource. I believe nothing should take priority over the education of our youth. While I do not use drugs and believe in our laws against them, I am offended by the notion that we should spend more per year housing a a drug user in prison than we do educating a child. We can still keep our community safe without wasting tens of millions of dollars a year keeping minor drug offenders in our correctional facilties. While it may not seem ideal, I believe it’s a conservative approach to making sure South Carolina schools improve until they are the best in the nation.”

Nah, that would never work.

But, look at it this way, if we keep churning out stupid kids, at least we have laws and sentencing guidelines that will get them three hots and a cot after they get busted for slinging rock.

Brad Willis

Brad Willis is a writer based in Greenville, South Carolina. Willis spent a decade as an award-winning broadcast journalist. He has worked as a freelance writer, columnist, and professional blogger since 2005. He has also served as a commentator and guest on a wide variety of television, radio, and internet shows.

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3 Responses

  1. BadBlood says:

    Is http://www.sceducationlottery.com making a dent in these budget shortfalls? If not, then what’s the point? (We both know the point.)

    Political systems are Tragedies of the Commons.

    I wish there was an Intelligencia Party who could be trusted to make optimal decisions for society. Instead we have panderers to the least common denominator. Stupidity.

  2. Astin says:

    The war on drugs long since failed. Arresting the users helps nobody.

    But that’s not what its about anymore. I can’t speak for SC, but if you take a look at California, prison is a business and business is good. The police and prison workers unions are very powerful there, politically speaking. So they push for more money and more prisons to be “tough on crime”, but in reality the money is ill-spent. Providing excessive salaries, benefits, and pensions that get abused. Someone coldly looking to solve the problems could easily slash those budgets and redirect the money to more useful areas or tax cuts.

    But since politicians only care about one thing – getting re-elected – that’s not going to happen. Because any politician who doesn’t agree to dump more money instead of real solutions into the prison system will be portrayed as “soft” on crime.

  3. Special K says:

    Interesting, and I don’t disagree that drug users and small time dealers (those who sell enough to support their hobby/habit) shouldn’t be lumped in with violent criminals. I wonder what punishment would be used to replace prison. I wouldn’t oppose legalizing pot, but I don’t think we want open season on the harder drugs. House arrest would be a joke and only fines would become just a cost of business (or recreation).

    You discussed how much is spent on prisons and education. Where is the rest of the money going?

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