COLUMBIA — State judges overseeing bond hearings for accused criminals need more information to make better decisions about whether a suspect should be released on bond, S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal said Wednesday.
“The lack of information our judges have about criminal backgrounds necessitates that we find a way to interface with SLED so that our judges can have up-to-date criminal background information,” Toal said.
Toal made her comments in her annual State of the Judiciary speech to a joint session of the S.C. General Assembly.
The topic of judges’ decisions in bond hearings has been a hot one in the Columbia area in the past year, with news reports on how some judges have set low bonds for repeat-offender suspects who already have serious criminal charges pending and, in some cases, a criminal record.
Some obviously dangerous suspects released by judges have gone on to be re-arrested on charges such as murder and robbery while out on bond.
The State Law Enforcement Division maintains a database of S.C. criminal charges.
After Toal’s speech, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin – a proponent of making it harder for dangerous criminals to make bond – issued a statement saying that Toal’s remarks make it clear that repeat violent offenders pose “a very real threat to our communities.”
“Far too many of our families have been victimized by these dangerous career criminals and that’s why I and leaders from across the state have repeatedly voiced our citizens’ concerns and asked the Legislature to make comprehensive bond reform a priority,” said Benjamin. The mayor formed a panel on violent crime that in December recommended a change in the law that allows people to be released from jail with minimum down payments and lengthy installment plans.
In her 25-minute speech, for which she received a standing ovation, Toal also called attention to pilot programs of “alternative courts” in various counties.
These diversionary courts involve non-violent crimes where defendants have mental health, substance abuse or other behavior issues such as truancy that can be better handled with treatment and behavior modification techniques than prison, she said.
“These courts need to be institutionalized statewide,” Toal said.
Offenders successfully completing such programs can get their records expunged, she said.
Wednesday was Toal’s 15th and next-to-last State of the Judiciary. Chief justice since the year 2000, she has promised to retire at the end of 2015.
At 70, she is the state’s longest-serving chief justice in modern history.
Toal has now been on the Supreme Court 26 years, almost 14 of those as chief justice.
She is believed to be the second-longest serving chief justice – after Eugene Gary in the early 20th century – since the modern state Supreme Court was organized in 1868, according to historical records. Gary served almost 15 years as chief before dying in office in 1926.