Crime & Courts

Panel tackles quirks in laws

In South Carolina, a person caught with more pseudoephedrine than legally allowed will end up with a longer prison sentence than another person caught with the illegal drug methamphetamine.

That's just one of dozens of quirks in South Carolina's sentencing laws that a committee of politicians, judges and government officials are trying to correct.

The S.C. Sentencing Reform Commission on Wednesday heard 44 recommendations from a work group that has studied sentencing for crimes with a punishment of more than one year in prison.

State Rep. Murrell Smith, R-Sumter, said it was a laborious process to review the entire S.C. sentencing code.

"This is a compilation of statutes that has been compiled over the years for political reasons," he said. "It's a hodgepodge. We want to put some sense back into our criminal justice system."

Smith is chairman of the work group that has reviewed sentencing guidelines for the sentencing reform commission. The commission will vote on the recommendations Monday.

Meanwhile, two other work groups are researching changes to the parole system and ways to punish criminals through methods other than prison, such as community service and treatment of addictions or mental health problems.

The entire commission must have a report prepared for the General Assembly by Feb. 1, said Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Darlington, the commission's chairman. Legislation will be crafted from that report.

Malloy said the Legislature intends to make changes to the laws this year.

"It's got to happen," he said.

The commission was organized more than a year ago. Besides streamlining sentencing laws, the commission also hopes its work will help reduce the state's prison population.

The state's prisons are almost full, with 24,600 people incarcerated last year. That's a 13 percent increase since 2000.

The average prison sentence in South Carolina is 42 months, Smith said.

"We want to resolve these problems without building more prisons and all the while keeping the public safe," Malloy said.

The challenge for Smith's work group is changing sentencing laws so they are uniform without creating loopholes.

Part of the problem, Smith and other lawmakers said, is the Legislature added stiffer sentences to crimes when it was trendy. The sentencing for possessing pseudoephedrine, an ingredient for methamphetamine but also commonly found in cold medication, is one example.

And, politicians have added penalties to satisfy various special interests. Under the laws for assigning punishment for assault and battery, there are specialized penalties for different professions, such as sports officials, home health-care workers and school personnel.

"We need to make those uniform so there's one penalty for assault and battery," Smith said.

It is a tricky task to change sentencing laws. The commission's members want crimes and punishments to be applied as they were intended.

Changing the law created to enforce drug-free school zones triggered confusion on how to make changes without drafting more loopholes.

The law states it is illegal to possess or distribute drugs within a half-mile of a school. The original intention was to prevent crack houses and other drug havens from popping up near schools, said Judge William Keesley, a commission member who served in the Legislature when the law was written.

"It was never our intention to throw this on top of every drug charge," Keesley said.

But that is what has happened. In larger cities, there is a school within a half-mile of any point. Police who pull over a car with drugs will add that charge to their citations, Smith said.

However, Smith's group could not figure out how to write the law so it would prevent police from piling on charges and yet keep drug dealers away from schools.

"It's like a balloon," he said. "You push on one side and the other side goes up."