HILTON HEAD ISLAND — Solicitor Duffie Stone wants a sentence to mean what it says.
That’s not the case in South Carolina today, he says.
With the exception of criminals sentenced to life or convicted of murder, most are eligible for release from prison long before they have served the time ordered by a judge.
That’s why Stone, whose 14th Circuit Solicitor’s Office includes Beaufort County, and the S.C. Solicitors’ Association plan to push for “truth in sentencing” when the state legislature reconvenes in January.
Abolishing early release tops their list of reforms, which also include getting rid of parole.
In some cases, nonviolent criminals are eligible for parole after serving only a quarter of their sentences, Stone said.
He also wants to get rid of the credits prisoners earn for work, education and good behavior – sometimes all three at once – that can shave years off their sentences.
When those credits add up, inmates can “max out” the time they were ordered to serve and be released with no restrictions, such as probation or parole.
For example, Tyrone Robinson, accused of firing the bullet that killed 8-year-old Khalil Singleton in a shooting Sept. 1 on Hilton Head Island, was released several times before serving all of his time for previous convictions.
Robinson was sentenced to 13 years in 2003 for stealing a car and leading a state trooper on a high-speed chase through Old Town Bluffton. He was released after serving a little more than half of the sentence.
Stone declined to discuss Robinson’s case, citing the pending charges.
However, both he and Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner say some convicts know how to work the system, turning down parole because they know they can stay in prison for another two months, “max out” and walk free.
Tanner, who supports a change in the sentencing law, said many people don’t understand the elements at work that can reduce a sentence, but he believes criminals know it well.
Stone said he is tired of telling victims he doesn’t know how long the people who harmed them are going to be behind bars.
“To release somebody before their sentence has expired, I think you take a bad situation and make it worse,” Stone said. “What that does is it gives a prisoner confidence. It makes them think they have gotten away with something.
“A judge has sat on the bench and told them, ‘You are going to do 10 years,’ and they walk out of prison in 2 1/2. What kind of an effect do you think that has?”
Stone said he doesn’t believe “truth in sentencing” will significantly increase costs for the S.C. Department of Corrections, nor does he expect it to add to the long-term problem of crowded jails. He plans to make the argument that “day for day” sentences will be a deterrent that will reduce crime.
David Pascoe, president of the state solicitors’ association, said he is studying data from Virginia’s truth-in-sentencing law, and that costs and the number of prisoners have not risen. He hopes the information will bolster what has been a “difficult push” to get the measure through the S.C. General Assembly.
As a result of reforms over the years, some sentences are already “day for day” in South Carolina, as in the case of those sentenced to life or convicted of murder. Those convicted of certain violent crimes, such as armed robbery, must serve 85 percent of their sentences before they are eligible for parole.
However, all other sentences are subject to reductions, leading to uncertainty about when a prisoner will be released.
Stone is in the midst of combing through S.C. Department of Corrections data and getting other public-safety officials on board.