Public safety added to priorities

During its December meeting, the Municipal Association's board of directors added public safety to the Association's legislative priorities for the 2014 legislative session. The other three priorities are dilapidated buildings, dependable revenue sources, and quality transportation and infrastructure maintenance.

The public safety issue has been a major concern for local officials and many members of the General Assembly because of the rise in violent crime across the state.

"Gun violence, gang activity, and bond and sentencing issues are all concerns as cities and towns look at combating violent crime," says Joe McElveen, president of the Municipal Association and mayor of Sumter.

In Columbia, Mayor Steve Benjamin convened a Task Force on Violent Crime and Bond Reform to make local and state level recommendations to address these issues. Among those recommendations are enhancing the bail process by improving the quality of the information available to judges during bond hearings and increasing the minimum fee that must be required by bail bondsmen before posting bond. The task force also recommended enhancing sentences of individuals who reoffend while out on bond for a previous serious or violent crime and improving victims assistance services by giving victims of serious or violent crime sufficient notice to attend the bond hearings.

This legislative session, several bills are making their way through the General Assembly that address various issues related to violent crime. Details and current status of these bills can be found on the Municipal Association's website.

Senator Chip Campsen of Charleston and former Senator Robert Ford introduced S19 during the 2013 session. Campsen says his goal is to "stop the revolving door for repeat violent offenders. The public is very frustrated with this when criminals are released then go out and get arrested and bonded out again."

The bill would allow a court to deny bond for an individual who is charged with a serious or most serious offense while out on bond for a serious or most serious offense if the court finds there is probable cause to believe the person may have committed the crime. The bill also specifies that the bond hearing for the new charge must take place within 30 days of the arrest.

Sen. Thomas McElveen of Sumter prefiled S857 in December. He said that his bill is an effort to address recidivism. "This legislation would give prosecutors and judges a way to enhance penalties for those criminals who continue to commit crimes while out on bond. It's a way to target the worst of the worst and keep them where they need to beāˆ’incarcerated."

McElveen's bill deals solely with sentencing enhancement after a person has been convicted of both an initial charge and a charge that occurred while out on bond for the first charge. The bill would allow a court to add to that person's sentence up to 40 percent of the maximum sentence for the offense committed while out on bond.  This enhancement would also apply to an individual convicted of a lesser but similar offense.

Rep. Phyllis Henderson of Greenville introduced H4368 that focuses on gang recruitment and reflects the realities of today's growing gang activities.

She says the legislation addresses sentencing enhancements as well as the definition of a gang. "Gangs are getting more prolific and smaller and smaller to get around the definition in the law."

The bill also removes the current mandate for personal recognizance bonds in cases where a court has not found the accused poses a threat to the public or is unlikely to show up for trial. As well, the bill sets a minimum bond amount that should be required by the court when assessing crimes alleged to have been committed by criminal gang members and requires payment of the full face amount of bond in those cases rather than the traditional 10 percent.

"While any of these bills could substantially change as they go through the committee process, all are a good starting place for discussions about curbing violent crime and making our cities and towns safer," said Miriam Hair, executive director of the Municipal Association.