The South Carolina House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill on Tuesday that is meant to keep repeat violent offenders from being released on bond.
The proposed law now heads to the governor, 11 months after it also cleared the Senate in a unanimous vote.
The legislation tries to address what law enforcement officials see as a serious problem: when a suspect is arrested, released on bond, then commits a second or third violent crime but is still released on a relatively low bond.
Several recent high-profile cases have spurred action in the General Assembly. One of the suspects accused of killing a Columbia bakery employee in a botched July robbery had been released on bond for a previous robbery despite older charges still pending. A Greenwood man with an extensive criminal record was out on bond for burglary charges when he killed his girlfriend and four of her relatives in October.
A judge sets bond largely based on whether the suspect is a flight risk or presents a danger to the public. It is not up to that judge to determine guilt or innocence and the suspect is allowed constitutional protections against “excessive bail.” The bill approved Tuesday would add several additional criteria, including the suspect’s family members and if he or she is a suspected gang member.
Sen. Paul Thurmond, R-Charleston and former prosecutor, said the bill changes what he believes is a flaw in current law that leads to violent criminals appearing before a magistrate within 24 hours of their arrest. Instead, circuit judges will take up the case if the suspect was already out on bond. The circuit judge would have 30 days to determine bail. Thurmond said the idea is to give a judge more time to review a suspect’s previous criminal history, along with hearing from a victim’s advocate.
“You see more and more of repeat offenders going out on bond and being accused of very similar acts,” he told South Carolina Radio Network. “It does raise the question: how can we ensure this information is presented to a judge?”
State Rep. David Weeks, D-Sumter, said he hopes to keep the worst repeat offenders off the streets before their trial. “You wonder why these folks are still out walking around,” he said after Tuesday’s vote. “I mean, you’ve got to balance that person’s individual liberty and rights, but when they’re demonstrating they’re a threat to society… those folks need to stay in jail.”
The law would not actually change whether the suspect can still eventually be granted bond. It would only provide additional time for prosecutors to build a case against bail. A section that would have imposed tougher sentences for crimes committed while out on bond was removed in a Senate committee last year.
Weeks, an attorney in his private life, said the bill also still gives a judge discretion on whether to eventually grant or refuse bond. But he said the legislation still sends a message. “It’s not what I’d call ‘earth-shaking changes,’ but it does give judges a clearer path to understanding that the general thought of the public… is that judges should be a little tougher,” he said.