COLUMBIA (AP) - The South Carolina House passed a bill this week eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes and reducing the amount of time drug offenders have to serve in prison for some offenses.
The bill passed 62-45 on Wednesday and will go on to the Senate. With six days left in the General Assembly's 2021 session, it will likely be next year before senators can take it up.
By eliminating the mandatory prison sentence for drug charges, including trafficking, the bill would bring South Carolina laws in line with its neighbors and the federal government, said House Judiciary Chairman Chris Murphy, a Republican from North Charleston.
The bill also reduces the amount of time prisoners have to serve on drug offenses that do not offer parole to 65% of their sentence. Current law requires them to serve 85% of their sentences.
The proposal is retroactive, which means about 500 of the state's 20,000 inmates could have their sentences cut back over the next two decades, saving the prison system about $3.5 million.
A number of Republicans opposed the measure, including state Attorney General Alan Wilson, who wrote a letter to lawmakers saying the state remains in a crisis with methamphetamine, fentanyl and heroin and "it is not the time to send the message to drug traffickers and criminal gangs that South Carolina is open for business with the lightest penalties around."
Murphy said the elements of the bill have been debated for more than a decade and it was more a matter of fairness.
"We're doing the exact same thing that President Trump did when he was elected and reformed the federal drug laws because our laws are antiquated and need to be reformed," Murphy said.
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