SC’s prisons are filled with drug offenders, thanks to SC’s draconian mandatory minimum sentences and lengthy prison sentences for drug crimes.
Without making any distinction between hardened criminals, true drug traffickers, or someone who was just in a home or in a car with a drug dealer, SC’s drug laws will take a person off the street, separate them from their families and community, and essentially end their life as they know it with a 20- or 30-year sentence based solely on the weight of the drugs found.
And the threshold weights for a drug to be considered trafficking are extremely low – SC has some of the most draconian drug laws in the country. Why have our legislators been so fixated on punishing drug addicts and hurting people instead of helping them become productive members of society again?
A bipartisan bill to change that has passed a SC House Subcommittee, although it must now be passed by the full House and Senate and signed by the governor before it can become law.
Bipartisan Bill to Change Mandatory Minimum Sentences for Drug Offenses Passes House Subcommittee
The proposed bill would make major changes to SC’s drug laws, including changes to mandatory minimum sentences, no-parole offenses, and the threshold weights beyond which a drug crime is elevated to a more serious offense like drug trafficking.
Mandatory Minimum Sentences
SC’s drug laws contain mandatory minimum sentences of up to 25 or 30 years for some drug offenses based on the weight of the drugs found or the person’s prior convictions for drug offenses.
The proposed bill would remove those mandatory minimum sentences, allowing courts more latitude in determining what the appropriate punishment should be based on each defendant’s individual circumstances.
The drug laws also make many drug crimes “no-parole” offenses, increasing the amount of time that a person must spend behind bars before they can be released under supervision. A no-parole offense is defined by SC Code Section 24-13-100 as any class A, B, or C felony or any crime that is exempt from classification but carries a potential penalty of 20 years or more.
No-parole offenses require the inmate to serve at least 85% of their sentence before they can be released to community supervision, but the proposed bill would reduce this to 65% of the time served if the conviction was “pursuant to Section 44-53-370 or Section 44-53-375” (drug crimes).
To qualify, the inmate must also have:
- No “substantial or major” disciplinary infractions,
- Completed a rehabilitation program, and
- Completed the Department of Correction’s reentry program.
The proposed bill would also increase the threshold weights that allow law enforcement to charge more serious offenses.
To get an idea of how low the threshold weights currently are and how the bill would change them, take a look at this chart detailing some of the current threshold weights and the new weights under the proposed legislation:
|Drug Offense||Current Threshold Weight||Proposed Threshold Weight|
|Simple possession of cocaine||Less than one gram||Less than four grams|
|Possession with intent to distribute cocaine||One gram or more||Four grams or more|
|Trafficking cocaine||Ten grams or more||28 grams or more|
|Simple possession of heroin||Less than two grains||Less than ten grains|
|Possession with intent to distribute heroin||More than two grains||More than ten grains|
|Trafficking heroin||Four grams or more||(no change)|
|Simple possession of marijuana||Less than one ounce||Less than ten ounces|
|Possession with intent to distribute marijuana||More than one ounce||More than ten ounces|
|Trafficking marijuana||More than ten pounds||More than twenty pounds|
Why It Matters
Why do mandatory minimum sentences, no-parole drug offenses, and low threshold weights matter?
SC’s politicians passed our harsh drug laws to target drug dealers and drug traffickers. The idea was to save lives (and get political points for being “tough on crime”), but what mandatory minimums actually do is destroy lives.
These laws make no distinction between, on the one hand, a hardened criminal who is carrying guns and distributing large amounts of drugs, and, on the other hand, a drug addict who is trying to support their habit or an acquaintance who found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The law also makes no distinction between “actual” possession and “constructive” possession – if you are in a car or a house where drugs are found, you could be taken to jail, charged with drug trafficking based solely on the drug’s weight, and subject to a mandatory minimum sentence of decades in prison.
If your boyfriend, husband, or wife is selling drugs from your home, you may want to get help for them. Instead, when police come through your door with a search warrant, you and your partner may be looking at decades in prison.
Drug addiction and drug sales (which are often motivated less by money and more by the seller’s own addiction) can be fought with compassion, education, treatment, and help. Many people whose lives are cut short by drug charges and mandatory minimum sentences could have recovered, returned to school, found good jobs, and supported their families.
Instead, we take them away from their families, schools, jobs, and homes, often locking them up for decades of their lives after which, without assistance, they may return to the life they were living before their incarceration.
The proposed bill is good law and should be passed by the House and Senate. It’s not enough, though. SC should go further, abolishing incarceration for possession of small amounts of drugs and investing in education, jobs, and treatment programs to help those who can be helped instead of gratuitously hurting them, ripping them from their families, and separating them from society.
If the goal is to improve our communities and reduce drug addiction, we are still going about it the wrong way.