South Carolina closed seven prisons between 2003 and 2016 as its inmate population dropped, but the number of inmates aged 55 years of age or older grew from just 833 to 2,294 during the same period. The swelling senior citizen prison population has raised concerns in Columbia, and lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle have proposed changes that would allow inmates who are 60 years old or older to petition for parole after serving at least half of their sentences. Supporters of the bill say that older inmates have extremely low recidivism rates and are very expensive to incarcerate.
Allowing older inmates who pose little threat to society to seek parole could free up crucial funds for the South Carolina prison system. Advocacy groups and think-tanks say that many detention facilities in the state are understaffed and much of the money that is available is being used to incarcerate nonviolent offenders.
If passed, the bill would continue the changes made to the South Carolina criminal justice system that were began with the passing of the Omnibus Crime Reduction and Sentencing Reform Act in 2010. That legislation and falling crime rates have seen the state’s prison population fall from about 25,000 inmates in 2007 to just 19,000 inmates today. This reduction has saved taxpayers almost $500 million according to supporters of the bill.
Experienced criminal defense attorneys would likely support legislation that gives nonviolent offenders a chance to get their lives back on track. Many of the harshest sentences for nonviolent offenses are handed down to those convicted of drug crimes, but prosecutors may be willing to reduce these penalties in return for a speedy settlement in certain situations. When prosecutors are torn on this issue, defense attorneys may encourage them to lean toward leniency by pointing out mitigating factors like gainful employment, sincere remorse and a supportive home environment.