Even though it’s supposed to be independent and uninfluenced by the political branches of government, the S.C. Supreme Court still manages to be a good team player. Too bad the Legislature isn’t.
Nearly a year ago, as The Post and Courier’s Seanna Adcox reminds us, the high court ruled unanimously that South Carolina’s toughest-in-the-nation sex offender registry is unconstitutional, because it gives an unappealable lifetime sentence to people most of us wouldn’t think of as dangerous sex offenders.
Think 15-year-old boys who had consensual sex with their 15-year-old girlfriends, or frat boys who urinate in public. Not behavior we want to encourage, to be sure, but also not behavior that should follow them around for the rest of their lives.
Granted, the sentence isn’t terribly onerous: Those placed on the state’s sex offender registry (and there’s a way for people convicted of indecent exposure and underage sex to get around it, if they get the right judge) have to go to their local sheriff’s office twice a year to check in, and their names are listed on an online sex offenders’ registry, along with their address, convictions, vehicle and photo.
But it’s still something they have to keep doing decades after they’ve served their time in prison. This makes them different from other criminals, who are able to leave their convictions behind them after they’ve served their complete sentences. Even the provision in the state constitution that bars people from holding office if they have been convicted of violating election and ethics laws expires 15 years after they complete their sentences.
It’s also at odds with the goal that our Legislature and others had for passing so-called Megan’s Laws in 1994, in response to national outcry over the sexual assault and murder of 7-year-old Megan Kanka of New Jersey by a neighbor who had a record of sex crimes against children. As the court noted, “the lifetime inclusion of individuals who have a low risk of re-offending renders the registry over-inclusive and dilutes its utility by creating an ever-growing list of registrants that is less effective at protecting the public and meeting the needs of law enforcement.”
The court didn’t say the state can’t sentence all sex offenders to a lifetime on the registry; it simply said they had to be given a way to appeal that part of their sentence at some point. Think of it as a parole hearing, of the sort that we give most felons behind bars.
The court even said — and this is where the team player part comes in — that the Legislature had a year to fix the law to accommodate this. That was partly a matter of self-preservation, because otherwise, the courts could have been flooded immediately with petitions from the 17,000 people currently listed on South Carolina’s sex offender registry. But it was also consistent with the court’s longtime practice of giving the Legislature time to make the sort of tailored changes to state law that a court can’t make.
And the Legislature did nothing. For nearly 11 months, and counting. Three lawmakers introduced bills to create an appeals process, although that wasn’t until late February — eight months after the court order. The House bill is still sitting in committee, where it appears not to have gotten any attention. The Senate bill was assigned to a subcommittee last month, but members of the Senate Judiciary Committee haven’t yet worked out a path forward.
Senators did vote last week to advance a House-passed bill on a related topic that they should be able to use as a vehicle for an eventual plan, but only six days remain in the regular session. That’s enough to pass a bill if everybody agrees to it. But then, so is more than 10 months, and we’re still waiting.
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