Politics & Government

Nonviolent SC drug dealers could see shorter prison time as lawmakers push reforms

NAACP marchers rally in Columbia on way to Washington D.C.

Marchers are making their way from Selma, Ala. to Washington D.C. to rally for swift action on criminal justice reform.The marchers reached South Carolina over the weekend and stopped for a rally at the Statehouse where the National NAACP Presiden
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Marchers are making their way from Selma, Ala. to Washington D.C. to rally for swift action on criminal justice reform.The marchers reached South Carolina over the weekend and stopped for a rally at the Statehouse where the National NAACP Presiden

S.C. lawmakers are pushing ahead with a proposal to cut the number of inmates in the state’s prisons.

But critics say the plan ignores the rights of crime victims.

If passed into law, a 200-page S.C. House bill with bipartisan support would offer nonviolent criminals the chance of early release from prison. Among other provisions, the bill calls for the automatic parole of nonviolent inmates who meet certain conditions. It also removes mandatory-minimum sentences for certain crimes, including some drug-trafficking convictions.

The proposal could save the state money and help address chronic shortages in prison staff. The cost of operating S.C. prisons has exploded. Meanwhile, the state cannot hire enough prison guards because, in part, of low pay.

Former inmates, their family members and advocates for crime victims filled a State House meeting room for a hearing on the bill last week.

“(O)ur incarcerated families are losing hope,” said Erica Felder, co-founder of the Hearts for Inmates group. “More prison time is not the answer. We’re saying that we have to allow these people to earn their way ... back into society as productive citizens, and that’s what this bill will do.”

However, advocates for crime victims argue the proposal would jeopardize community safety and shatter the state’s truth-in-sentencing guidelines. That tough-on-crime legislation sought to ensure convicts served a substantial part, if not all, of their prison sentences.

“This bill will promote more criminal behavior and fosters further mistrust of the criminal justice system,” said Laura Hudson, executive director of the S.C. Crime Victims Council. “Allowing the General Assembly to impose reduced sentences ... is perpetrating a lie. It is hiding the truth and endangering the public that’s been led to believe they are safe from an individual criminal.”

But state Rep. Chris Murphy, a Dorchester Republican who supports the bill, said the proposal would not remove any rights given crime victims under the S.C. Constitution’s Victims’ Bill of Rights, approved by more than 80 percent of S.C. voters in 1996.

Round 2

The S.C. bill follows changes to federal sentencing laws signed into law in December by Republican President Donald Trump. The federal changes are based on state-level reforms previously passed in Texas, Kentucky, Georgia and — in 2010 — South Carolina.

After those 2010 reforms, South Carolina saw a drop in the number of convicts who committed more crimes after being released from prison and a smaller prison population. That saved taxpayers more than $400 million, according to lawmakers.

“By any measure, sentencing reform in South Caroline has already been a resounding success,” said state Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston, who helped pass the 2010 legislation. “It’s not soft on crime. It’s smart on crime and soft on the taxpayer.”

The latest criminal justice reform proposal stalled last year as lawmakers were consumed with the fallout from the V.C. Summer nuclear debacle.

But Campsen and House Judiciary Committee chairman Peter McCoy, R-Charleston, say they are optimistic the measure — backed by several Democrats, including House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, D-Richland — will pass this year.

Supporters say the bill would give judges more discretion when sentencing nonviolent offenders, particularly for drug offenses. They also say it would help with the rehabilitation of inmates serving time for minor offenses by providing incentives to take part in training and educational programs, helping convicts re-enter society after leaving prison.

“We are long overdue to take a look at some mandatory minimums on some sentences,” Rep. McCoy said. “(Victims’) rights need to be maintained and restored. But we have to look at some of the situations where people are getting 15 years, 20 years, 25 years for smaller drug offenses because of enhancements.”

Powerful House Speaker Jay Lucas, R-Darlington, declined to comment on the bill. His office said he is reserving judgment so as not to preempt the committee’s work.

What it would do

The proposal would:

  • Make inmates convicted of a “no-parole offense,” with the exception of those on death row or given a life sentence, eligible for early release if they have served at least 65 percent of their imposed sentence, down from 85 percent. Credits that prisoners can earn to reduce their sentences — for working, getting an education or good behavior — and any portion of the sentence that was suspended would not count in calculating the time served.
  • Allow inmates not eligible for parole to petition a judge to modify their sentence if they have served at least 65 percent of their sentence, provided they have completed a rehabilitation or education program, or “exhibited exemplary conduct”
  • Allow inmates to earn up to six days a month of “good credit,” up from three now, to reduce their sentences. They also could earn up to 144 days a year of work and education credit, up from 72 now. However, that would not apply to inmates serving life in prison or a mandatory-minimum sentence of 30 years.
  • Allow nonviolent, non-sex offenders who have not had a disciplinary infraction in the last 12 months to be released on parole when they are eligible without a hearing, unless a victim requests one.

Advocates for crime victims are indignant.

“The idea of reducing (the amount of time before an inmate can be paroled) is a complete insult to the victims of the state of South Carolina,” said Mothers Against Drunk Driving victims’ advocate Kimberly Cockrell. “This reduction that this bill is calling for, while it may make others feel good, it is revictimizing the truly innocent of our state.”

Prisons struggle with staff shortage

Rep. Murphy stressed the bill is still a work in progress. But, he added, it represents a decade’s worth of work, including studies and focus groups.

That work started in 2008, when rising recidivism rates, increasing prison populations and mounting correctional costs led the Legislature to establish the S.C. Sentencing Reform Commission.

South Carolina’s prison population soared to more than 25,000 inmates in 2009, up from 9,000 in 1983. Prison costs also ballooned — to $394 million from about $64 million during the same time.

Then, the first round of criminal justice reform kicked in and the prison population started dropping.

Still, as of June, about 19,000 inmates remained behind bars in state prisons across South Carolina.

Meanwhile, South Carolina’s prisons continue to struggle to hire enough employees, in part due to low pay. The staffing shortage partially is to blame for an eight-month-long lockdown following the deadly April riot at Lee Correctional Institution.

A March 2018 report by former Illinois warden Tom Roth suggests the Corrections Department, which commissioned the study, either needs to hire more than 2,000 corrections officers — seen as infeasible — or work to reduce its inmate population to a level that current staff can handle.

The guard shortage, Roth reported, has led to increased assaults on inmates and corrections officers, and higher costs through increased overtime and high employee turnover.

‘They can do great things’

Supporters of the criminal justice reform proposal say current state law prevents the S.C. Parole Board from considering strides that inmates have made while incarcerated to turn their lives around. Instead, officials now must focus on the original crime.

And, reform supporters say, that means they miss the complete picture.

Lester Young Jr. of Columbia, for example, was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 20 years after he was convicted of murder in 1992 for a drug-related slaying in Beaufort County.

Young was released from prison in 2014. Today, the 46 year old is a motivational speaker and part of a national movement dedicated to cutting the U.S. prison population in half by 2030.

“The nature of my crime did not define me then and does not define me today,” Young told lawmakers last week. Similarly, other inmates “while they’re incarcerated, they can do great things.”

Staff writer Emily Bohatch contributed to this report

Tom Barton covers South Carolina politics for The State. He has spent more than a decade covering local governments and politicians in Iowa and South Carolina, and has won awards from the S.C. Press Association and Iowa Newspaper Association for public service and feature writing.


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