South Carolina editorial roundup
Recent editorials from South Carolina newspapers:
The Post and Courier of Charleston on prison reform programs:
A prison reform bill that passed the House with a strong bipartisan majority is slowly dying in the Senate. It must be rescued and broadened.
The First Step Act focuses on ways to help federal prisoners prepare for a productive life once they leave prison and to support them in their search for employment. It is a thoughtful attempt to break the destructive cycle that results in more than half of federal prisoners returning to prison within a few years after their first release. Pilot programs have shown that recidivism can be sharply reduced by providing such support.
The lone problem with the First Step Act is that it addresses only the 225,000 inhabitants of federal prisons. That is just 15 percent of the nation’s prison population. The bill doesn’t help the far more numerous inmates transitioning from state prisons and local jails. It should provide states with grants to encourage the establishment of similar prison-to-society assistance programs.
South Carolina has shown that such programs can work. The state’s comprehensive re-entry program, part of a partnership between the Department of Corrections and the Department of Employment and Workforce, began at a Manning facility and is being expanded to other sites. Almost 70 percent of the people who leave prison after taking part in the program find work within a year, which is nearly three times the national average, according to corrections chief Bryan Stirling.
In the long run, reducing the number of repeat offenders is the best way to address the burdensome cost of prisons. Instead, some states facing overcrowded prisons and prison riots are considering sentencing reforms like those enacted last year in Louisiana. Reducing sentences saves money in the short run, but it may prove to be a temporary respite unless the ex-offenders are successfully reintegrated into society. All it takes is one sensational crime to turn voters against what some hard-line legislators call “jailbreak” laws too lenient on prisoners.
Upfront costs of reintegration programs can be a major obstacle to state action. Federal grants could provide a helpful financial bridge to meet the start-up costs.
Meanwhile, the First Step Act is caught in a conflict between senators who seek federal sentencing reforms and those who strongly oppose them.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, wants to add bipartisan sentencing reforms that narrowly missed Senate passage in 2016 to the House legislation. That is adamantly opposed by Sen. John Kennedy, R-Louisiana, who opposed the sentencing reform bill passed by the Louisiana Legislature last year, and Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, who argues that federal sentences are not tough enough.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, could sideline the entire prison reform bill to avoid a debate pitting Republicans against each other before the midterm elections. That would be a shame.
Sen. Grassley should do the right thing and drop his effort to attach sentencing reforms to the bill and instead focus his committee on broadening it to encourage state action on the prison-to-society transition. Sen. McConnell should then green-light that bill. Such a compromise would lead to meaningful assistance for people trying to put their lives back together and avoid a return trip to prison.
The Times and Democrat of Orangeburg on the opioid crisis:
South Carolina recently got bad news on the level of the opioid abuse crisis in the state.
For the third year in a row, the number of opioid-involved overdose deaths has increased in the Palmetto State, according to data collected by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. From 2014 to 2017, the total number of deaths related to opioid overdose increased by 47 percent, from 508 to 748 deaths.
The total number of prescription drug-involved overdose deaths, which include non-opioid drugs, increased by 37 percent, from 572 deaths in 2014 to 782 in 2017. Heroin-involved overdose deaths saw a sharp increase of 153 percent, from 57 to 144 deaths. Overall, fentanyl-involved overdose deaths saw the largest increase of 432 percent, from 68 to 362 deaths from 2014 to 2017. Deaths due to methadone, however, continue to decrease from 79 in 2014 to 45 in 2017, which is consistent with national trends, as methadone is used for the treatment of opioid use disorder.
Toward understanding why the situation has reached the point of a statewide health emergency as declared by Gov. Henry McMaster, T&D Staff Writer Dionne Gleaton profiled the opioid crisis in an eye-opening three-part series in 2017 focusing on the extent of the problem, its direct impact on lives and what can be done.
Since the series, the state has formed Opioid Emergency Response Team, which is tasked with utilizing South Carolina’s emergency management infrastructure to address the crisis.
Progress has been made.
While the three major metropolitan areas (Charleston, Greenville and Richland counties) all saw considerable increases from 2016 to 2017 in opioid-involved deaths, Horry County, which has the largest burden of opioid misuse in the state, saw a substantial decrease in opioid-involved overdose deaths (24 percent, from 101 in 2016 to 77 in 2017). Efforts around response and prevention, such as a unified task force and coalition, have been implemented in Horry County, which may have contributed to the decline in the overdose death rate.
But there are miles to go.
“This new data demonstrates the devastating effects that the opioid crisis continues to have on our state,” McMaster said. “While the combined efforts of the OERT’s members and the many other South Carolinians dedicated to combating this public health emergency are having a positive impact, there is still much work to be done.”
Addressing opioid abuse as a crisis will be necessary, unfortunately, for the foreseeable future.
The Post and Courier of Charleston on lawsuit in state Supreme Court over a new cruise ship terminal:
The state Supreme Court’s decision to take up a local lawsuit challenging a permit for a new and expanded cruise ship terminal is a welcome development not just for the plaintiffs but for any individual or organization seeking relief from a governmental decision.
At issue is the legal “standing” to challenge a ruling or action. Without it, judges dismiss cases before ever examining the underlying complaints, which in this case concern pollution and traffic generated by cruise ships.
To be granted standing, plaintiffs typically have to demonstrate they have suffered direct harm by the action in question. And so far, claims that exhaust fumes have caused sore throats or aggravated respiratory conditions have been deemed insufficient. But if Charlestonians and their advocates don’t have a say in how in their environment is shaped, who does?
In the cruise ship case, the plaintiffs, including neighborhood, historic preservation and environmental groups, are challenging a 2012 permit the state Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) issued to the State Ports Authority to rehabilitate a wharf for a new terminal adjacent the existing one at the foot of Market Street.
In the latest go-around, the State Court of Appeals ruled that the plaintiffs failed to show they would suffer any direct harm and “presented only speculative claims that the proposed passenger terminal would adversely affect their property values and businesses.”
But shouldn’t anyone have a right to ask a court to review a decision that affects them? We think so, and so does attorney Blan Holman, who is representing the plaintiffs.
“We will ask the Supreme Court to restore those rights, which are vital to keeping the government in check and accountable to citizens across South Carolina,” he told The Post and Courier recently.
In 2013 in federal court, where rules about establishing standing differ slightly, a judge rejected an Army Corps of Engineers permit issued for the project, saying the agency focused only on replacing some pilings under the wharf and failed to consider the environmental impact the new terminal would have on the historic neighborhood surrounding it.
So far, it’s unclear when the state Supreme Court will take up the long-running case against DHEC, but it’s worth noting that Carnival Cruise Line plans to replace its Charleston-based ship Ecstasy with the slightly larger Sunshine in May.
For the time being, the State Ports Authority is sticking to its self-imposed cap of 104 port calls per year. But the cruise industry continues to expand, and the agency will no doubt come under increased pressure to lift that cap if the terminal project is allowed to move forward.
Putting arguments for or against cruise ships aside, we hope and trust the state’s highest court will decide that, indeed, citizens do have a right to their day in court when it comes to governmental decisions affecting the environment — truly a shared asset in which we are all stakeholders.