COLUMBIA -- South Carolina took another step toward passing a new law that would free up space in prisons by putting more future nonviolent offenders into community-based treatment and supervision programs.
The House Judiciary Committee approved the 92-page bill Tuesday by a voice vote and sent it to the House floor.
The Senate passed the bill in March and it most likely will not face a veto. Gov. Mark Sanford threw his support behind the bill last month.
Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, a Charleston Democrat and former prosecutor, said the bill is needed to keep the criminals who are dangerous behind bars and help rehabilitate offenders who don't jeopardize public safety. He said the bill also is tough on criminals by reclassifying some crimes as violent and setting new minimumsentences. Another example is that the bill would close loopholes in the court system that allow some people to get out of attempted murder charges with light sentences, he said.
"We have an antiquated justice system in a lot of ways," Stavrinakis said. "If we're going to move forward in making sure that public tax dollars are utilized in the most effective way, we have to take this step."
Much of the bill would be effective with the governor's signature, but some provisions won't be effective until January. The bill does not allow the early release of prisoners, except in narrow cases involving geriatric and terminally ill inmates.
If the bill does not pass, the state will need to build another maximum-security prison, estimated to cost $317 million, in the next five years to handle a projected surge in prison inmates.
The legislation causes concern about overwhelming the probation and parole system, which is already vastly understaffed. However, legislators in favor of the bill say that savings generated in the prison system can be diverted in future years to bolster community-based programs and supervision.
The Judiciary Committee made a handful of minor changes to the bill. Rep. Keith Kelly, R-Woodruff, said the goal for supporters is to shepherd the bill through the legislative process with as few changes as possible. He said the state Sentencing Reform Commission spent a year vetting the proposals and took into account feedback from Republican and Democratic legislators, the judicial branch, national criminal-justice experts, public defenders and victim advocates, among others.