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Barnette: Legislature debating bills that could place you and your family in danger

Published on Thursday, February 28, 2019

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Barnette: Legislature debating bills that could place you and your family in danger
By BARRY BARNETTE
7th Circuit Solicitor

The South Carolina Legislature is debating bills that could place you and your family in danger.

Senate Bills 155, 161 and House Bills 3322, 3580 were introduced with hopes of reducing the state’s prison population. The bills will retroactively allow thousands of inmates to seek early release.

The bills, as presently written, reduce the time inmates serve on no-parole offenses from 85 percent of the sentence to 65 percent. Two bills allow inmates who have served 15 years of a sentence to petition a Circuit Judge to have their sentence reduced or ended. The bills make at least 3,465 no-parole inmates eligible for release at an earlier date. Of this group, 396 inmates (99 of them serving time for sexual assault), would immediately be eligible for release from the SCDC.

The views of victims need to be considered in the Legislature’s proposals to reconsider sentencing and reduce the time served for no-parole offenses. The omission of victims’ perspectives in the crafting of these bills is mind-boggling.

Victims, victim advocates, law enforcement and others attended a Feb. 20, 2019 subcommittee hearing on House Bill 3322 to learn details regarding the proposed changes in no-parole offenses. At the hearing, committee members stated they did not mean for crimes with victims to be included and the alteration of those sentences would be removed from the bill by an amendment. That amendment has not been seen yet.

Walter Lance, Robert Brown, James Dimsdale, Brady Lloyd, and Leonard Lee Foster are a few of the convicted felons waiting for these bills to pass. These inmates are serving sentences of 30 to 50 years for crimes such as first-degree criminal sexual conduct with a minor, attempted murder, armed robbery, kidnapping and driving under the influence with death. Additionally, some of these inmates are repeat offenders.

Let me share a frightening example of what could happen if the House bills are passed.

Imagine a man sexually assaults your three-year old daughter as well as other young girls. He is convicted of first-degree criminal sexual conduct and ordered to serve 40 years in prison under our current no-parole law; he will serve 85 percent of his sentence (34 years in prison) before his possible release.

If the House bills pass, you and your daughter will revisit the crime 15 years later when you receive notice of a sentence modification hearing. The notice will discuss how the inmate only has to serve 65 percent of his prison sentence before seeking modification.

The original prosecutor is no longer in the Solicitor’s Office and the original trial judge is no longer on the bench. The new prosecutor and the new judge have no knowledge of the case outside of the court transcript or a case file from storage.

Your daughter and the other young girls just turned 18 years old. They worked through their victimization with counseling but now must revisit one of their worst days. If the inmate’s petition is unsuccessful the first time, they can refile every 2 years until it is granted. The victims will relive the nightmare over and over again. This situation will happen repeatedly if House Bill 3322 or 3580 is passed.

Early release of inmates before the completion of their prison sentence will make our state a more dangerous place to live. The SCDC reports nearly one in five inmates return to prison within three years of their release. That number is sure to jump if sentence lengths are shortened.

The proposed bills will likely flood our court system with resentencing petitions as soon as they are passed. The influx of new proceedings will mean accused criminals and victims in newer cases will have to wait longer for their cases to be heard.

Senate Bill 155 was discussed during a committee meeting on Feb. 21, 2019. It is reported the bill will soon head to the Senate floor with an amendment that has not yet been seen which reduces time inmates serve on certain crimes to 75 percent and others to 65 percent. Victim cases may or may not be in the amendment. Even at 75 percent, at least 3,400 no-parole inmates would be eligible for an earlier release, 232 inmates (52 involve sexual assault) would be immediately eligible for prison release.

It is a mystery why criminal justice reform is moving so hastily. Parties from all parts of the judicial system need to participate.

Proponents of criminal justice reform argue prison populations need to be reduced due to a lack of rehabilitation and other resources behind bars. These issues need to be addressed instead of releasing potentially dangerous people back into our neighborhoods.

You cannot put any price on public safety. I ask the Legislature to take a long look at what they are doing before it is too late.

 

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