- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 5, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - A gang member would receive a longer prison sentence under a bill proposed in the South Carolina House.

Rep. Phyllis Henderson said Wednesday she hopes her bill, prompted by last October’s shooting of University of South Carolina student Martha Childress, helps law enforcement keep gang members off the streets.

“It really made me angry,” Henderson, R-Greer, said of the shooting, noting her daughter is a USC student.

Childress was shot as she waited for a taxi in Columbia’s Five Points neighborhood, paralyzing her below the waist. She was not the intended victim. Police said it was a stray bullet.

Henderson’s measure increases prison time for crimes that benefit a gang. For most crimes, a conviction for a gang member would result in an extra one to five years. But life imprisonment would result for some felonies.

Jeff Moore of the state Sheriffs’ Association said the real crux of the bill is the minimum $50,000 bond requirement for arrested gang members. The bill allows an exception only if the court determines the suspect is unlikely to reoffend and agrees to intensive pretrial supervision.

“It sets a high bond automatically. It takes discretion out of their hands,” Moore said, referring to judges who might otherwise set a low bond or let suspects go on their own recognizance.

That’s the part of the bill opposed by the state Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys.

Attorney Heath Taylor said it needs to allow for the possibility that gang members can turn their lives around, then get arrested years later for a crime completely unrelated to any gang. As it’s written, if that person’s name hasn’t been removed from the state’s gang database, a judge would have to set bond at $50,000, he said.

Moore said an amendment should be able to fix that.

The measure would also allow officers to arrest someone for recruiting gang members through encouragement of any sort. Under the state’s current gang law, passed in 2007, it’s illegal to recruit through threats and violence. Henderson said gangs have become so prevalent in South Carolina that it doesn’t take physical coercion to recruit.

The bill also redefines that a criminal gang can involve as few as three people, down from five, to match federal standards.

A House Judiciary subcommittee is expected to discuss the bill later this month. It was on the agenda for Wednesday’s meeting, but the panel adjourned without getting to it.

The panel is also considering a bond reform bill meant to keep violent offenders in jail as they await trial, prompted by high-profile cases of suspects involved in shooting deaths while out on parole. House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford contends that, as written, the bill doesn’t accomplish its goal.

“What you’re asking us to do does not address a single incident I’m aware of, but it makes people feel good,” said Rutherford, D-Columbia, who led Wednesday’s meeting.

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