WMBF News investigates SC bill that could let criminals out of prison sooner

Published: Apr. 10, 2019 at 11:35 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, SC (WMBF) – A bill in the State House could let prisoners out from behind bars sooner and start allocating more state funds somewhere else.

House Bill 3322 was introduced in the State House this year. In its original form, it allowed criminals with serious offenses like kidnapping, armed robbery and manslaughter out of prison after serving just 65% of their sentence. The current law requires them to serve at least 85% of their sentence before they become eligible for parole.

Rep. Todd Rutherford (D-Richland) is one of the co-sponsors of the bill and said the legislation has since been modified.

“One of the most important aspects of this bill is a retroactivity piece, which would take a sentence that someone received, which is currently an 85% sentence and roll that back to a 65% sentence. It would not do it for any sentence where there is a victim,” said Rutherford.

Fifteenth Circuit Solicitor Jimmy Richardson said he’s happy to hear that part of the bill go.

“You’ve got to learn to fight battles and not every hill is worth dying on, but when you’re talking about kidnapping and manslaughter and all those terrible charges, letting them out in 10 years as opposed to 30 years, that’s the hill to die on,” said Richardson.

Letting violent offenders out of prison would be detrimental and jeopardize public safety, according to Richardson.

“Hopefully we have beat that down for at least a year, but who knows. None of us are safe as long as the legislation is in session,” Richardson said.

The bill gets rid of mandatory minimum sentences for dozens of crimes. Rutherford said this bill rolls back the minimum amount of time a person convicted of drug crimes must serve.

“We have mandatory minimum drug sentences and some people are getting them with no prior record. Twenty-five-year mandatory minimum sentence. That sentence is going to run between $300 and $400,000 by the time that person is done. That is a ridiculous sentence,” said Rutherford.

Richardson said this is not the first time South Carolina has reformed sentencing. A similar bill was passed to focus on nonviolent offenders in 2010. Since then, the prison population has dropped in South Carolina prisons over nearly the last decade.

According to documents on the South Carolina Department of Corrections website, the average prison population was 24,040 in 2010. Four years later, that number decreased to 21,712 in 2014. By 2018, the average prison population decreased to 19,559.

“It’s one of those things that South Carolina was on the forefront of. We did sentence reform first in the country. We did not go far enough,” said Rutherford.

WMBF News also obtained budget numbers from the state for the Department of Corrections over the last few fiscal years. According to a spreadsheet provided by the South Carolina House Ways and Means Committee, the state appropriated the following funds in addition to what the Department of Corrections already had to operate on.

  • In fiscal year 2018, the state gave the Department of Corrections an additional $7.8 million
  • In fiscal year 2019, the state gave the Department of Corrections an additional $9.7 million
  • If the House’s version of the budget passes for FY20, the Department of Corrections will get an additional $22.8 million in appropriated funds for that fiscal year.

Georgia passed a sentencing reform bill in 2012. The Urban Institutes Justice Policy Center released a study analyzing the impact this bill had on Georgia’s prisons.

Rutherford said it is time for South Carolina to follow suit.

“This is what they’ve been doing for years. We just haven’t done it and were paying a cost for it. And that cost is we can’t allocate resources. We’re losing teachers every single day. Thousands of teachers. We can only give them a four percent pay raise. They need 10. Where is that money going to come from? If we continue to pump money into a prison so we can incarcerate people that we’re simply mad at,” Rutherford said.

He said this bill has been pending for a while. He said several studies have been done and the Legislature has listened to the stakeholders.

The most important part of this bill, according to Rutherford, is it won’t decrease public safety at all, but it will save taxpayers money.

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