Solicitor: new law gives drug offenders a break

The Horry County solicitor thinks a proposed law would give a break to people charged with a first offense of simple drug possession.

"It's a get-out-of-jail-free card," Solicitor Greg Hembree said Wednesday.

The proposal, known as "conditional discharge," is just one section of a sweeping piece of legislation called the Sentencing Reform Bill, aimed at saving money by reforming criminal sentences to reduce the number of people in South Carolina prisons.

Conditional discharge is nothing new. it was first introduced in the 1970s to handle the growing number of simple possession of marijuana charges.

Conditional discharge is when a judge or magistrate allows an offender to pay a fine and have their charges eventually dismissed.

However, through the years, conditional discharge became rarely used and was almost entirely replaced by pre-trial intervention, a combination of second chances and strict oversight.

With PTI, judges began adding conditions to giving drug users a second chance.

"They have to do mandatory drug testing ... if they have a drug problem, they have to get treatment. We can add those conditions," Hembree said, and "there's a structure to make sure those conditions are followed."

Where conditional discharge was applied only to simple possession of marijuana, lawmakers want to expand the method and apply it to all illegal drugs, according to Hembree.

"This statute has the effect of de-criminalizing possession of crystal meth first offense, possession of heroine first offense, possession of any illegal drug first offense," Hembree said.

Hembree doesn't understand why lawmakers want to do this when PTI is working so effectively. Plus, he said it will send the wrong message.

"You basically pay a $350 fine, your case is dismissed, the charge is expunged. You go down the road, and what's the lesson? 'Hey, doing drugs is no big deal.'"

The legislation has cleared the state Senate and it is now in front of the House of Representatives. If passed, it would head to Governor Mark Sanford's desk, and the governor has given clear indications he wants the entire reform act passed.