State judges overseeing bond hearings for accused criminals need more information to make better decisions about whether a suspect should be released on bond, S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal said Wednesday.
“The lack of information our judges have about criminal backgrounds necessitates that we find a way to interface with SLED so that our judges can have up-to-date criminal background information,” Toal said.
Toal made her comments in her annual State of the Judiciary speech to a joint session of the S.C. General Assembly.
The topic of judges’ decisions in bond hearings has been a hot one in the Columbia area in the past year, with news reports on how some judges have set low bonds for repeat-offender suspects who already have serious criminal charges pending and, in some cases, a criminal record.
Some obviously dangerous suspects released by judges have gone on to be re-arrested on charges such as murder and robbery while out on bond.
The State Law Enforcement Division maintains a database of S.C. criminal charges.
Following her speech, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin – a proponent of making it harder for dangerous criminals to make bond – issued a statement saying that Toal’s remarks make it clear that repeat violent offenders pose “a very real threat to our communities.”
“Far too many of our families have been victimized by these dangerous career criminals and that’s why I and leaders from across the state have repeatedly voiced our citizens’ concerns and asked the Legislature to make comprehensive bond reform a priority,” said Benjamin. The mayor formed a panel on violent crime that in December recommended a change in the law that allows people to be released from jail with minimum down payments and lengthy installment plans.
In her 25-minute speech, for which she received a standing ovation, Toal also called attention to pilot programs of “alternative courts” in various counties.
These diversionary courts involve nonviolent crimes where defendants have mental health, substance abuse or other behavior issues such as truancy that can be better handled with treatment and behavior modification techniques than prison, she said.
“These courts need to be institutionalized statewide,” Toal said.
Offenders successfully completing such programs can get their records expunged, she said.
Toal also said:
• A $60 million-plus largely federally funded plan now in its 14th year to transform South Carolina’s paper court records system into an Internet-based high technology system is now mostly complete, Toal said.
The final phase, which includes the e-filing of civil access and public access to those filings, should be complete by the end of 2015, she said.
• Criminal dockets are being cleared more rapidly across the state, with the York-Union county 16th circuit having the highest clearance rate – within a one-year period – of 89 percent.
Not only are speedy dispositions better for victims and faster for the accused, but the practice of counties holding prisoners awaiting a trial – at a cost of about $60 a day – is expensive, she said. Some counties spend more than $100,000 on a single inmate as that inmate awaits trial, she said.
Better teamwork among solicitors, public defenders, judges and clerks of court has helped clear criminal dockets criminal dockets across the state, Toal said. “A lot can be done simply by meeting together and working together.”
• Business courts that hear complex business litigation have been expanded across the state. Complex business cases “can suck the air out of a docket,” so having special judges that deal with these cases frees up other parts of the state’s criminal and civil dockets.
Wednesday was Toal’s 15th and next-to-last State of the Judiciary. Chief justice since the year 2000, she has promised to retire at the end of 2015.
At 70, she is the state’s longest-serving chief justice in modern history.
Toal has now been on the Supreme Court 26 years, almost 14 of those as chief justice.
She is believed to be the second-longest serving chief justice – after Eugene Gary in the early 20th century – since the modern state Supreme Court was organized in 1868, according to historical records. Gary served almost 15 years as chief before dying in office in 1926.