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Commentary: 9 ways SC should reform criminal justice, improve public trust

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Duffie Stone

Duffie Stone, 14th Circuit Solicitor. Provided

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.

So I’m pleased that S.C. House Speaker Jay Lucas has formed a study committee for criminal justice reform, examining all aspects of our system, and that the Senate is also working on 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 cellphone to gather what will almost certainly be pivotal evidence guiding these decisions. 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. Require law enforcement to 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.

The General Assembly should authorize solicitors to develop plans requiring law enforcement to electronically transmit all evidence immediately.

3. Make unnecessary use of force a separate crime. Forty-one states have such laws to specify conditions under which law enforcement can and can’t 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. Currently, we have no way to compel access to internal affairs investigations, criminal complaints or disciplinary actions against officers. Lawmakers should require all law-enforcement agencies to report that information for a database that prosecutors can use to meet our legal obligations to inform the court about misconduct allegations.

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. Full funding by the Legislature 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. The term “sentencing reform” has become synonymous with sentence reduction. Community safety requires that incorrigible offenders — about 20% 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% of their sentence before they can be released.

7. Replace the state parole board with a re-entry board. In tandem with truth in sentencing, the repurposed parole board would help prisoners transition into society, overseeing and coordinating 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.

8. Repeal South Carolina’s citizen-arrest statute. This statute justifies vigilantism and can be used as a defense for murder.

9. 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.

Our state’s solicitors have studied and advocated some of these measures for years. As prosecutors, we see the full spectrum: victims of the worst crimes, good officers who place themselves in harm’s way, veterans held captive by the trauma that they experienced while fighting for our freedom, priests who molest children, repeat offenders and officers who do the opposite of protecting people.

Any reform needs to recognize all of this, not just some. Criminal justice reform must be comprehensive to have a positive impact and re-establish the public trust. These nine recommendations can start the process.

Duffie Stone is South Carolina’s 14th Circuit solicitor and president of the National District Attorneys Association.

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