Advocates call for reversal of decades-old “tough-on-crime” statutes in South Carolina

Several had a chance to be heard at Tuesday's Sentencing Reform subcommittee meeting

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WOLO) — A group of South Carolina lawmakers listened to testimony Tuesday morning from several people fighting for lighter restrictions on prison sentences across the state.

This was one of the first meetings held by members of a House committee focused on reforming law enforcement and their relationship with minority communities. The full committee, chaired by House Majority Leader Gary Simrill (R-York Co.) and House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford (D-Richland Co.), first held a meeting back on July 28.

Six people spoke before the committee, citing that laws from the 1990’s aimed to make South Carolina tougher on crime are outdated, and have led to unnecessary crowding of the state’s prisons.

After serving more than 20 years following a conviction for murder, Lester Young Jr. with JustLeadershipUSA said several people inside the state’s prisons are stuck due to the tough legislation that has been on the books for two decades.

“You have inmates that have been inside of a prison since 1993, 1994, appealed before a parole board, have done everything within those 20 years of their incarceration to rehabilitate themselves, but unfortunately every time they go up for parole, there’s always a statement in the parole letter that says the nature of one’s crime, that’s the reason they are being denied parole,” Young said.

South Carolina lawmakers passed a bill back in 1995 that called for mandatory minimums and tougher punishments for felony drug crimes.

In front of the House Sentencing Reform subcommittee, some, including York County Deputy Public Defender BJ Barrowclough, told lawmakers mandatory minimums are creating distrust with minority communities, and letting prosecutors dictate an inmate’s fate.

“Creating mandatory minimums creates a system where it’s really the prosecutor doing the sentencing, and that is not really the prosecutor’s function,” Barrowclough said.

Subcommittee chair Chris Murphy (R-Berkeley County) said a sweeping, 200-page sentencing reform bill (House Bill 3322) is already on the House floor, and had been streamlined to “make it more passable”, but said a bipartisan amendment was tabled when it was discussed this year on the House floor.

Rep. Murphy said that bill, which incorporates similar elements to what the speakers were calling for, could serve as the starting point for future bills.

Still, some want to see change sooner than January.

“I’m more solution-oriented. What is it that we can do?” Erica Felder with Hearts for Inmates asked the subcommittee. “Why are we housing people who are not posing threats? People have been there five years, six years, ten years, 20 years. They can’t undo the crime, but what they can do is potentially help save other people’s lives by sharing their story.”

Alongside Rep. Murphy, other members of the subcommittee present at the meeting were Rep. Leon Stavrinakis (D-Charleston Co.) and Rep. Chris Hart (D-Richland Co.). Rep. Mandy Kimmons (R-Dorchester Co.) is also part of the subcommittee.

Alongside the Sentencing Reform subcommittee, a subcommittee centered on law enforcement officer training, tactics, and accountability met Tuesday afternoon. State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) Chief Mark Keel, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, and Orangeburg County Sheriff Leroy Ravenel were among those scheduled to speak.

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