Members of law enforcement, crime victims and their families told South Carolina lawmakers on Wednesday that their proposal to reform South Carolina’s prison system needs more work, with many calling on legislators to allow them more input from the public.
House subcommittee members heard the feedback on a proposal that calls for automatic release on parole for individuals who commit nonviolent crimes and meet certain conditions. It would also remove mandatory minimum sentences.
Republican Rep. Chris Murphy said the bill, which has already garnered bipartisan support, was not intended to provide sentencing relief to offenders who commit crimes that involve a victim such as murder, criminal sexual conduct, armed robbery or battery. He said lawmakers will amend the proposal to clarify the language.
“Ninety percent of the removals of mandatory minimums are offenses that are misdemeanors and are within the jurisdiction of the magistrate’s court,” the North Charleston lawmaker said. “The hope is that it would create, free up space at our local detention facilities, your local county jail.
While members of the law enforcement community said they understand the intentions of the bill, several said they fear the impact it would have if passed in its current form.
Jarrod Bruder, executive director of South Carolina Sheriff’s Association, said crimes listed in the legislation as nonviolent crimes could very well be violent in nature, adding that the confusion could be problematic.
“Every year we come down here, whether we are talking about sentencing reform or we’re talking about expungements, whatever it is, we cannot define accurately for everybody to agree what is violent vs. nonviolent crimes,” Bruder said. “What is the definition of victimless crime? Everything has a victim.”
The legislation fails to address crimes by repeat offenders, such as drug offenses, according to Chief Greg Mullen of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Officers’ Association. He said all stakeholders in the legislation deserve a seat at the table.
“People who have demonstrated over and over again that they will continue to prey on our communities, those are the criminals, the career criminals we want to make sure they are mandatory incarceration for those individuals,” Mullen said. “Any changes that occur should take into consideration the complete criminal justice system which includes the victims, the offenders and all law enforcement in our communities.”
Murphy said law enforcement officials had ample opportunities to participate in discussions while the proposal was being drafted, Murphy said. He added that everyone was welcome to offer suggestions during discussion groups held throughout the year across the state.
Removing mandatory minimums for drug offenses allows the judicial system to use their discretion to make the right call and give the appropriate sentences, Murphy said.
“This will give judges who are entrusted in hearing a case, evaluating all the facts of a case, the crime, the victim, and apply the law,” he said.
No action was taken on the bill.