Justice asks to amend sentencing

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COLUMBIA --- South Carolina's Supreme Court chief justice asked lawmakers on Wednesday to consider revamping the state's sentencing laws, suggesting that changes made to North Carolina's system have saved that state money and made citizens safer.

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal and State Attorney General Henry McMaster (shown) agree that violent criminals should stay behind bars longer without parole.  Associated Press
Associated Press
State Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal and State Attorney General Henry McMaster (shown) agree that violent criminals should stay behind bars longer without parole.

"Sentencing in the United States is a national problem," Chief Justice Jean Toal told a joint session of the House and Senate during her annual address. "The costs of incarceration are a major drain, not only on state resources but on local government."

Some of Justice Toal's proposals, including keeping violent criminals behind bars longer, echoed ideas supported by state Attorney General Henry McMaster. In 2006, Mr. McMaster told lawmakers studying South Carolina's criminal justice system that abolishing parole for serious crimes would give victims and the public peace of mind in knowing precisely when criminals would be released from prison.

State prisons director Jon Ozmint has spoken out against Mr. McMaster's proposal, arguing that prison populations would increase, further straining the department's budget.

To keep inmate numbers from skyrocketing, Mr. McMaster has also proposed that some offenders be eligible for alternative sentences such as road cleanup or work at public buildings. On Wednesday, Justice Toal also mentioned alternative sentencing, saying it could save costs for the cash-strapped Corrections Department.

"A lot of voices have been heard in all branches of government, but this is really your leadership issue more than any other," she said. "You can bring together all of the stake holders. ... It doesn't need to take years."

The chief justice also repeated her request for legislators to pay for more judges in the state's circuit and family courts.

"I could use them in every circuit in the state," Justice Toal said, adding that South Carolina's trial judges are the most overloaded in the country.

Justice Toal asked lawmakers to make the new judges at-large, which would allow them to travel where needed.

Justice Toal briefly addressed last year's blowup over state bar exam results, saying the high court was only trying to be fair when it allowed about 20 people who had initially failed the test to pass.

"Your Supreme Court made this decision with the sole motivation of trying to be fair," she said. "Judicial independence is the bedrock of our profession."

The court decided when a scoring error was detected on the bar exam to throw out a section of the test. Two scores that were reversed were for children of a state legislator and a state judge.

While Justice Toal said she doesn't support legislation that would create a 13-member commission to regulate lawyers under the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, she said she believes the Legislature was the appropriate forum to discuss the disciplinary system.

"No other state licenses or disciplines its lawyers by use of an executive-based board," she said. "I believe our current system works well."


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