Bond limits for people with violent charges clears SC senate

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) – Anyone in South Carolina who is charged with a violent crime or gun-involved felony while awaiting trial for additional and similar charges would see their bond immediately revoked under legislation that unanimously passed the state Senate on Wednesday, with strong support from Republican Gov. Henry McMaster.

A longtime prosecutor, McMaster has been ratcheting up pressure on the General Assembly to change a bond system that he says enables a “revolving door” of defendants who continue to rack up violent charges while on pretrial release.

While there is no data on the frequency of such occurrences statewide, lawmakers have pointed to examples like a 2019 fatal shooting committed by a 35-year-old man who had been released on bond for domestic violence charges.

Opponents referenced a 2022 study of the Charleston County jail that found that only about 5% of people who were out on bond and awaiting trial were charged with a violent offense in the first six months.

Advocates for criminal justice reform have said the effort would put stress on already overcrowded jails – at a time when jails near Columbia and Charleston are facing a slew of wrongful death lawsuits alleging inhumane conditions.

On Tuesday, McMaster said he was “less worried about overcrowding” than “about people getting killed” by those who are awaiting trial.

“When we have known criminals that are repeating the same or similar crimes over and over, it is inconceivable that we will continue to let them stay out of jail and do it again and again,” said McMaster, flanked by the state’s top cop and a local police chief Tuesday at a press conference.

The upper chamber responded Wednesday with a fast-tracked bill architected by a bipartisan group of senators that passed in a 43-0 vote.

Magistrates – who do not have to hold law degrees – would be removed from the process in those scenarios. Instead, circuit court judges would always preside over ensuing bond hearings in a change that supporters say would yield more critical analysis. Judges would have to consider any pending or prior charges and bond statuses in future hearings.

A provision was cut that would have added the possibility of an additional five-year sentence at a separate trial – backed by the GOP-controlled House and McMaster, who called it a necessary deterrent. House Democrats decried the proposal as undermining the presumption of innocence.

Senators removed the provision, and questioned its constitutionality and effectiveness.

“I just don’t believe very many defendants that are committing this level of crime are thinking, ‘Well, gee, if I do this again, I might get an additional five years somewhere down the road in the indefinite future,'” Republican Sen. Greg Hembree said.

The bill seeks to make it more difficult for people who are facing additional charges for violent crimes to post bond. It would establish a tiered system requiring defendants to pay increasingly large amounts for future bonds.

Opponents suggested that the General Assembly instead tackle the case backlog in state courts that has left many defendants waiting lengthy periods for their trials to begin. To that end, Hembree said lawmakers have allocated funding for additional prosecutors and defense attorneys. The Senate bill would also allow defendants whose bond got revoked to request a trial within six months.

Democratic Sen. Dick Harpootlian, a criminal defense attorney who voiced those concerns during debate, said the final bill balances the rights of people facing charges and the community’s safety.

“I just don’t think there are that many people who are going to fit this criteria,” Harpootlian said of the changes to bond for people who face subsequent charges of violent crimes or gun-related felonies. “They’re small in number but large in impact if they’re out committing violent crime.”

Senators expressed confidence that a group of lawmakers from both chambers could resolve their differences before they wrap work on May 11.


James Pollard is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

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