S.C. Statehouse Report
Sunday, Oct. 15, 2006
VIEW: http://www.statehousereport.com/columns/06.1015.crime.htm


State looking at ways to take bites out of crime
By Andy Brack
Publisher
SC Statehouse Report

OCT. 15, 2006 - When the Legislature returns in January, one of the first things lawmakers likely will consider is how to take a bigger bite out of crime.

Despite statistics that show violent crime like murder is slightly down over past years, there's a perception crime is becoming more of a problem. That's due to a spate of murders in communities across the state this year, a perceived increase in gang violence and media reports of incidents across the country.

For the past several weeks, a special Senate task force has been meeting to look into legislative remedies for violent crime. But as Sen. Gerald Malloy notes, the whole criminal justice system needs to be reviewed in South Carolina, which has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country.

"Our job is to reach a balance on whether we're going to be a lock-em-up or a rehabilitative society," said the Hartsville Democrat who is heading the task force. "Just to add more stringent penalties doesn't solve the crime problem."

Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell, the Charleston Republican who launched the task force with Malloy as chair, said it was clear a single approach wouldn't fix the state's criminal justice system.

"There is a multiplicity of problems," he said, noting that criminal justice activities have been underfunded for years. "We've got to get a message across to this General Assembly that spending money in this area - - courts, adding prosecutors, adding indigent defense and alternative sentencing - - can pay dividends in public safety down the road."

Among the areas being studied by lawmakers:

More funding. When Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. recently testified and unrolled a long rap sheet of an individual arrested but not sent to jail, lawmakers got a clear message the system was too clogged to get some of the bad guys off of the streets. They'll be looking at more funding for courts to reduce backlogged cases and more money for solicitors and public defenders to reduce their case loads to help move those facing charges more quickly through the system.

Better case management. The state currently doesn't have a unified electronic case management system, but professionals say such a system could help tremendously in court dockets and scheduling. Lawmakers might also look at using the system to promote accountability because it could be used to set deadlines for cases to be heard in court. If they weren't heard by a deadline, the court might be able to take over the docket.

"If we are able to get the courts unclogged, people out on bond will end up in state prison at a faster rate and we'll remove the pressure for plea bargaining," McConnell said.

Alternative sentences and sentencing guidelines. Prison officials and lawmakers say alternative sentences are needed because non-violent criminals, such as drug users, are swelling the prison population. Additional burdens have been put on prisons, they say, due to mandatory minimum sentences without corresponding improvements in facilities. The state hasn't opened a new prison since 1994.

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State Corrections Department Director Jon Ozmint noted in a Sept. 18 letter to Malloy that South Carolina currently ranks 50th on spending on corrections. "Crimes involving no actual violence, such as drug use, purchasing and distribution, should be reclassified as nonviolent and the mandatory minimum sentences and TIS [truth-in-sentencing] requirements should be reduced and/or removed," he wrote.

Going after gangs. State Law Enforcement Division Chief Robert Stewart said while violent crime dropped 2.5 percent in 2005 according to preliminary figures, gang violence has increased from 272 reported incidents in 2001 to 691 incidents in 2005. The state needs a better monitoring system for gang violence and he has urged state lawmakers to give power to the State Grand Jury to target gang violence.

DNA collection. Officials suggest another strategy is to draw DNA samples from people who have been arrested, but not convicted, in serious crimes. Seven states already collect such samples, Stewart said, according to The Post and Courier.

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10/6: Sanford needs to pay attention to state boards

To the editor:

I just read your article (Commentary, 9/3) regarding the massive number of unfilled positions on state boards and commissions, due to the Governor's lack of attention.

As an agency head, I am so frustrated with this issue. I am appointed by a seven-member board for the State Library. Two board members' terms expired July 1, and they are not eligible for reappointment. The board chair's term also expired; he could be reappointed.

This leaves us with 4 "current" members, serving according to the rules. If one of the four is unable to attend a board meeting, we do not have a quorum and cannot conduct business.

As a new agency head, I began contacting the Governor's Appointments Secretary last January. We sent recommendations for new members from the applicable legislative districts.

If anyone has a good solution -- I would love to hear it.

Thanks for listening.

-- Patti Butcher, Columbia, S.C.

NOTE: Ms. Bucher is director of the S.C. State Library. She has resigned to return to her home state of Kansas. Her last day is Oct. 20. More.

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