By Stan Welch
More than a hundred people attended Tuesday night’s town hall meeting of the Piedmont Crime Watch group. Also on hand was an array of elected officials and law enforcement representatives from both Anderson and Greenville counties.
Greenville County Councilman Lynn Ballard (D26) and S. C. House member Ashley Trantham (D 28) were joined by GCSO Lt. Robert Whatley. Representing the Anderson side of the equation were Sen. Mike Gambrell (D 4), Rep. West Cox (D 10) Councilman James Davis (D6) and Sheriff Chad McBride.
Moderator Charlene Spelts directed questions prepared by the crime watch committee to the various panel members. Rep. Cox was asked what can be done to prevent property owners and landlords from renting to known drug dealers and users. He cited several factors that make that approach problematic; foremost of which is the issue of property right. Adding to the difficulty is Piedmont’s unincorporated status, as well as the fact hat it straddles the county line, dividing the law enforcement presence.
“I would say this, however. Light drives out darkness. If you know of someone who routinely rents to questionable tenants, go to them and let them know you’re aware of it,” Cox said. “On the other and, make law enforcement aware of these locations so that they can shed some light on them.”
Another issue raised concerned criminals making bail so quickly and short sentences for those convicted. The issue of restoring prison farms and chain gangs drew a lot of support from the crowd, but the panel seemed more aware of the actual problems with that. Sheriff McBride pointed out that most of the five hundred or so inmates in the Anderson jail are awaiting trial, and cannot be used to pick up trash or perform other labor. Senator Gambrell added that while the idea is attractive, federal regulations and civil rights concerns make it almost impossible to implement.
Greenville Councilman Ballard, during a discussion of jail overcrowding and clogged courts, responded that just hiring more prosecutors will have little impact. “In Greenville county, and I expect in most counties, seventy five percent or more of the defendants tried are represented by public defenders, so you’ll have to beef up that department too.”
Senator Gambrell pointed out that most people’s first, if not only, contact with the courts is in the magistrate courts. “I meet with my appointed magistrates annually to review their performance, and to remind them that I expect them to be involved and committed to their roles.” Gambrell also spoke about short sentences and repeat offenders. “For the last three years I have sponsored legislation about repeat offenders, but in the Senate, one Senator can essentially delay or derail a bill they disagree with. Another problem is that the courts have gotten away from using the three strikes sentencing guidelines.”
Rep. Cox informed the crowd that House bill H4297 is currently being considered. That bill would allow adding five years to the sentence of anyone convicted of a crime they committed while out on bond for another charge. It would also deny bail for anyone with a felony record who is arrested again. He also reminded the crowd that the legislature elects the judges, and intimated that they might use that leverage more effectively.
Lt. Whatley explained that the GCSO has begun sending out law enforcement, code enforcement and animal control officers together. “It’s kind of like a small task force, but it prevents having to send three different people at three different times, It has been very effective.”
The meeting adjourned after ninety minutes. The next meeting will be held at the Wesleyan Church Life Center on October 29.
By Stan Welch