SC lawmakers working to change sex offender law to comply with Supreme Court ruling

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Published: Mar. 18, 2022 at 8:06 PM EDT|Updated: Mar. 18, 2022 at 8:30 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - South Carolina lawmakers now have less than three months to change the state’s law on sex offenders, and if they don’t, all of the more than 17,000 registered sex offenders in the state could apply at that point to be taken off the registry.

The deadline follows a ruling last summer from the state Supreme Court, which called South Carolina’s law, requiring sex offenders register for life with no opportunity to petition to be removed from that list, the strictest in the country.

The court also ruled that requirement is unconstitutional and told the state it had to adjust the law within a year, which is up on June 9.

This week, Attorney General Alan Wilson and Eleventh Judicial Circuit Solicitor Rick Hubbard testified on the proposed changes senators are currently considering.

“You’re trying to figure out a way to get people efficiently off the registry if they need to come off, in a way that is the most efficient, least expensive way as possible. At the same time, you’ve got to protect the public as you release people [from the registry],” Wilson said.

A proposal that now awaits a Senate committee hearing would separate offenses into three tiers, with Tier III encompassing the most serious crimes.

Lawmakers are tasked with finding a way for offenders who are at low-risk of re-offending to ask to be removed from the list. The Senate bill would allow that to happen no earlier than 15 years after their incarceration or active supervision of probation or parole ends.

“If you’ve reoffended, if you’ve been chronic about not registering and caused all other problems, you don’t even qualify to make the application,” Senate Majority Leader Brad Hutto, D – Orangeburg, said. “… If you’ve done your counseling, you’ve been out in the community, you haven’t reoffended — I’m not saying you’ve been the model citizen, but you haven’t been in any trouble and haven’t done anything to suggest that you, at least overtly suggest, that you should still be on the registry.”

Under the current law, the only way a sex offender can be removed from the registry is if their conviction or plea was reversed, overturned, or vacated on appeal.

Lawmakers are working out if offenders would need to participate in a hearing if they petition for removal, or if prosecutors, with victims’ consent, would be able to forgo that step if they agree to the offender’s removal.

Wilson said these court-ordered changes, no matter how they shake out in the final version of the law, would result in a massive undertaking for all parties involved.

“If we’re giving the opportunity to object, that means we have to, A, notify the victim. Sometimes you’re dealing with cases that are 15, 20 years old. The original investigators, the prosecutors are retired, moved out of state, or dead. It requires actually going back and looking into actually the underlying facts of the case, not just the charge,” he said.

Wilson said his office and other agencies would need to hire more staff just to accommodate these changes and the ensuing hearings, which he said would mean they would need more money from the state budget than what they have already requested for the next year.

Once the new law is in place, Wilson asked for an additional year to be able to fully implement those changes, but Hutto was unsure if the court would allow that.

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