Bill backed by Beaufort County officials would reform sentencing

astice@islandpacket.comApril 29, 2013 

A bill in the S.C. Senate aims to remove uncertainty about how long some inmates will be in prison, by expanding the list of offenses ineligible for parole.

State Sen. Greg Hembree, R-Horry County, is a former solicitor who said current sentencing rules are a "high-stakes guessing game."

Because of parole and credits earned for good behavior, education or work, many convicts become eligible for release long before they have served the time ordered by a judge.

Hembree, the bill's sponsor, said the current system is unfair to victims and defendants, and the bill would make the process clearer for everyone.

"Fundamentally, it is the most important step we can take to reestablish some credibility in our criminal justice system," Hembree said. "When you get a sentence, this is what it is."

The bill, currently in the Senate Judiciary Committee, would define all crimes that carry a sentence of more than a year as "no parole" offenses. Inmates could still earn credits for good behavior, but could only reduce time served on a sentence to 85 percent, Hembree said.

Duffie Stone, solicitor of the 14th Judicial Circuit which includes Beaufort County, supported the measure last week in testimony. "Truth in sentencing" reform is also backed by the S.C. Solicitors Association.

As a result of sentencing reform over the years, some sentences already require prison time. Those sentenced to life or convicted of murder are not eligible for early release. Those convicted of certain violent crimes, such as armed robbery, must serve 85 percent of their sentences before they are eligible for parole.

However, other sentences "are anybody's guess as to what the defendant will actually serve," Stone said. Many inmates are eligible for parole after serving only a quarter of their sentences, and data from the S.C. Department of Corrections state that the average inmate serves 56 percent of the time ordered by a judge.

Stone doesn't believe the bill, if it passes, would lead to more inmates being kept in prison longer or higher costs. It does not include mandatory minimum sentences, which were part of the criminal-justice reforms passed in Virginia when it abolished parole in 1994.

Instead, Stone believes the measure will allow judges to hand down sentences that fit the crime. Both Hembree and Stone said current sentences are overestimated to account for uncertainty over how long an offender will have to serve.

Parole still would be an option for current inmates. As those cases cycle out, Hembree said, a secondary goal of the bill is to abolish parole boards.

S.C. Department of Corrections director Bill Byars declined to comment, saying through spokesman Clark Newsom that he wanted to study the bill further.

The bill is up for debate in the Senate Judiciary Committee today. The committee's chairman, Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, is a sponsor.

The bill's supporters say it won't make the May 1 crossover date in the General Assembly, meaning there's little chance it will pass this legislative session. But they hope to have it ready for passage next year.

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