By DUFFIE STONE
Solicitor 14th Circuit
President National District Attorneys Association
The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis has sent a cry for criminal justice reform reverberating across the nation and into the halls of Congress, but the most important reforms will take place at state and local levels. Accordingly, I am pleased South Carolina House Speaker Jay Lucas has formed a study committee, which includes two of our delegation members, Shannon Erickson and Weston Newton, for criminal justice reform, examining all aspects of our system, and that the Senate is also working to introduce its own bill.
I urge our state leaders to incorporate the following measures:
1. Equip every law enforcement officer with a body-worn camera. Every officer issued a gun should also be given a camera, along with training on its proper use. Prosecutors depend on evidence to make tough decisions, including charging decisions in officer-involved shootings. It should not be left to a passerby with a cell phone to gather what will almost certainly be pivotal evidence guiding these decisions. Body cameras can provide a beginning-to-end record of an event from the officer’s perspective, providing protection for both officers and the public and helping to instill public confidence in law enforcement agencies. The state should provide full funding for this statutory mandate and include a criminal penalty for the willful destruction or editing of body-worn camera footage.
2. Law enforcement should make evidence in all cases immediately available to prosecutors. Officer-involved shootings and other high-profile cases pique the public’s rightful desire for a timely response from prosecutors. However, an effective and just response can only be made if a prosecutor has immediate access to all available evidence. In today’s cyber world, much of this evidence can be transmitted electronically within a matter of moments. The General Assembly should authorize solicitors to develop plans requiring law enforcement to electronically transmit all evidence immediately, whether that prosecutor be the circuit solicitor or the attorney general.
3. Pass an Unnecessary Use of Force statute. Forty-one states have Use of Force statutes — laws to specify conditions under which law enforcement can use deadly force — but South Carolina does not. State prosecutors now must try to fit an unlawful deadly shooting into either a murder or manslaughter charge.
4. Create a statewide database for police misconduct information and authorize prosecutor access. If arresting officers have misconduct issues affecting their credibility, prosecutors need to know that before moving a case forward for trial. Additionally, the court requires prosecutors to disclose police misconduct information to the defense. But we have no means by which to compel access to internal affairs investigations, criminal complaints or disciplinary actions against officers. Lawmakers should create a database of this information, mandate participation by all law enforcement agencies and provide prosecutors access allowing us to meet our legal obligations.
5. Reduce incarceration by adequately funding treatment courts. Most people are now convinced of the usefulness of drug, mental health and veterans court programs which provide alternatives to incarceration for offenders whose addictions or mental health underlie their criminal behavior. Requiring offenders to participate in treatment programs has proven effective in reducing recidivism at a fraction of the cost of incarceration. Yet the treatment element of these programs is so expensive, limited state funding has resulted in only the wealthiest counties participating by supplementing costs. Full funding by the General Assembly would allow each county to utilize treatment courts, thereby cutting inmate populations, saving state prison money, and, most importantly, helping those struggling with addiction to become productive citizens.
6. Provide for truth in sentencing. Unfortunately, the term “sentencing reform” has become synonymous with sentence reduction. The truth is some criminals struggle with antisocial behavior, while others embrace it. The latter are repeatedly arrested for a myriad of offenses, some violent, some nonviolent. Community safety requires that the most incorrigible offenders — about 20 percent of the criminal population — face penalties that are more stringent, not less so.
Career criminals, whether convicted of a violent or nonviolent offense, should serve 85 percent of their sentence before they can be released, regardless of the length of their sentence. S.C. Department of Corrections’ statistics show that prisoners serving 85 percent of their given punishment are the least likely of all prisoners to reoffend. The combination of adequately funded drug courts and truth in sentencing means fewer people go to prison, but those who do serve a sentence that reflects the judge’s intention and makes them less likely to reoffend.
7. Replace the state parole board with a re-entry board. In tandem with truth in sentencing, our state parole board should be re-purposed to help prisoners’ transition into society. The new board should oversee and coordinate programs during an inmate’s incarceration — such as counseling, education and vocational training, substance abuse treatment — to create a pathway to productive citizenship upon release.
7. Repeal South Carolina’s citizen arrest statute. This statute justifies vigilantism and can be used as a defense to murder. It should be repealed.
8. Require all officer-involved shootings and in-custody deaths to be investigated by an independent agency. Only an independent investigation can give the public confidence that a decision in any given case is proper.
South Carolina’s solicitors have studied and advocated some of these measures for years. As prosecutors, we see veterans held captive by the trauma that they experienced while fighting for our freedom finally get the treatment they need through our Veteran’s Courts. We see drug addicts successfully complete our diversion programs to go on to lead productive lives. We see victims overcome the worst crimes imaginable. We see good officers place themselves in harm’s way for these victims and for our safety.
But we also see the other side. We see priests that molest children. We see repeat offenders cycle out of prison only to hurt other people as soon as they are free. We see officers that instead of protecting people do just the opposite. We see hatred and we see evil. We see it in every neighborhood, every race and every occupation.
Any reform needs to recognize all of this, not just some. Criminal justice reform must be comprehensive to have not only a positive impact but to re-establish the public trust. These nine recommendations can start this process.