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What are the Key Factors in South Carolina’s Sentencing Guidelines?

Understanding South Carolina’s Sentencing Guidelines: Key Factors to Know

Felony Classifications

South Carolina divides many felony offenses into six classifications, ranging from Class A (the most serious) to Class F (the least serious)3. The felony class determines the maximum prison sentence for that offense:

  • Class A Felonies: Up to 30 years
  • Class B Felonies: Up to 25 years
  • Class C Felonies: Up to 20 years
  • Class D Felonies: Up to 15 years
  • Class E Felonies: Up to 10 years
  • Class F Felonies: Up to 5 years3

Some examples of felonies in each class include:

  • Class A: Kidnapping, armed robbery, attempted murder
  • Class B: Vehicular manslaughter, second-degree arson, drug trafficking
  • Class C: Second-degree criminal sexual conduct, aggravated assault and battery, carjacking
  • Class D: Second-degree burglary, repeat stalking, escape
  • Class E: Witness intimidation, grand larceny, bribery, first-degree domestic violence
  • Class F: Voter fraud, animal fighting, pointing a firearm at a person3

However, not all felonies fall neatly into these classifications. South Carolina also has many “exempt” felonies that carry their own specific sentences outside of the A-F class system3. For instance:

  • Murder: 30 years to life in prison or capital punishment
  • First-Degree Burglary: 15 years to life in prison
  • Human Trafficking: Up to 15 years for a first offense, up to 30 years for a second offense, up to 45 years for a third offense
  • Causing the Death of a Child By Abuse or Neglect: 20 years to life in prison
  • First-Degree Criminal Sexual Conduct with a Minor: 25 years to life in prison2

As you can see, exempt felonies often carry much harsher penalties, including potential life sentences. If you’re charged with an exempt felony, it’s especially important to understand the specific sentencing range you face.

Criminal History

Another major factor in South Carolina sentencing is the defendant’s prior criminal record. Repeat offenders generally face stiffer penalties than those with a clean record. In particular, South Carolina has a “two-strikes” law that allows for life sentences without parole in certain cases4. If a defendant is convicted of a “most serious offense” and has at least one prior conviction for a most serious offense, the judge can impose life without parole4. The two-strikes law also applies to those with two prior convictions for “serious” offenses4. Most serious offenses include crimes like murder, first-degree criminal sexual conduct, armed robbery, and first-degree burglary. Serious offenses cover a broader range of felonies like second-degree criminal sexual conduct, second-degree burglary, and aggravated assault and battery4. So having prior felony convictions, especially for violent crimes, substantially increases the potential sentence a defendant faces under South Carolina law. Even for first-time offenders, the judge has discretion to impose sentences up to the maximum for that felony class or exempt crime.

Aggravating and Mitigating Factors

Beyond the felony classification and criminal history, South Carolina judges weigh aggravating and mitigating circumstances when determining an appropriate sentence within the allowed range. Aggravating factors are those that can enhance a sentence, such as:

  • The crime was especially heinous, atrocious or cruel
  • The defendant has a significant prior record
  • The victim was particularly vulnerable (e.g. a child or elderly person)
  • The crime involved a deadly weapon
  • The defendant was a leader or organizer if the crime involved multiple people
  • The crime was committed for financial gain
  • The crime involved a large quantity of drugs

On the flip side, mitigating factors can justify a more lenient sentence, such as:

Christine Twomey
Christine Twomey
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Guerline Menard
Guerline Menard
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Keisha Parris
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Taïko Beauty
Taïko Beauty
I don’t know where to start, I can write a novel about this firm, but one thing I will say is that having my best interest was their main priority since the beginning of my case which was back in Winter 2019. Miss Claire Banks, one of the best Attorneys in the firm represented me very well and was very professional, respectful, and truthful. Not once did she leave me in the dark, in fact she presented all options and routes that could possibly be considered for my case and she reinsured me that no matter what I decided to do, her and the team will have my back and that’s exactly what happened. Not only will I be liberated from this case, also, I will enjoy my freedom and continue to be a mother to my first born son and will have no restrictions with accomplishing my goals in life. Now that’s what I call victory!! I thank the Lord, My mother, Claire, and the Spodek team for standing by me and fighting with me. Words can’t describe how grateful I am to have the opportunity to work with this team. I’m very satisfied, very pleased with their performance, their hard work, and their diligence. Thank you team!
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Anthony Williams
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divesh patel
I can't recommend Alex Zhik and Spodek Law Firm highly enough for their exceptional legal representation and personal mentorship. From the moment I engaged their services in October 2022, Alex took the time to understand my case thoroughly and provided guidance every step of the way. Alex's dedication to my case went above and beyond my expectations. His expertise, attention to detail, and commitment to achieving the best possible outcome were evident throughout the entire process. He took the time to mentor me, ensuring I understood the legal complexities involved to make informed decisions. Alex is the kind of guy you would want to have a beer with and has made a meaningful impact on me. I also want to acknowledge Todd Spodek, the leader of the firm, who played a crucial role in my case. His leadership and support bolstered the efforts of Alex, and his involvement highlighted the firm's commitment to excellence. Thanks to Alex Zhik and Todd Spodek, I achieved the outcome I desired, and I am incredibly grateful for their professionalism, expertise, and genuine care. If you're in need of legal representation, look no further than this outstanding team.
  • The defendant played a minor role in the crime
  • The defendant has no significant prior record
  • The defendant was under duress or the domination of another person
  • The defendant’s judgment was impaired (e.g. due to mental illness or substance abuse)
  • The defendant is young or elderly
  • The defendant assisted authorities after the crime
  • The defendant shows genuine remorse

The judge has to balance all of these case-specific factors, both good and bad, to determine a sentence that fits the crime and the individual. Having an experienced South Carolina criminal defense attorney to present your case in the best light and highlight mitigating factors is crucial.

Sentencing Hearings

After a defendant is convicted at trial or pleads guilty, the next step is a sentencing hearing. Prior to the hearing, the judge will review a pre-sentence investigation report prepared by the U.S. Probation Office1. This report includes a detailed sentencing guidelines calculation based on the specific offense and the defendant’s criminal history. While this calculation provides a starting point, it’s not set in stones. At the hearing, the prosecution and defense will present aggravating and mitigating evidence, respectively. The judge will also consider victim impact statements, character witnesses for the defendant, and the defendant’s own statement if they choose to speak1. After weighing all of this information, the judge will pronounce the sentence. This decision is final unless overturned on appeal, so it’s vital to put your best foot forward at sentencing1. Your defense attorney’s knowledge of the sentencing guidelines and ability to present a compelling case for leniency can make a real difference.

Fines and Restitution

In addition to prison time, many South Carolina felony convictions also carry hefty fines. If the specific criminal statute doesn’t set a fine amount, the judge has discretion to impose a fine based on the seriousness of the offense and the defendant’s ability to pay3. Defendants may also be ordered to pay restitution to victims. Restitution is meant to compensate the victim for any economic losses suffered as a result of the crime, such as medical bills, lost wages, or property damage. The amount of restitution is based on the victim’s actual losses, not the defendant’s ability to pay.

Probation and Suspended Sentences

In some cases, a judge may choose to suspend all or part of a prison sentence and impose probation instead. Probation allows a defendant to remain in the community under court supervision and subject to certain conditions, such as:

  • Reporting regularly to a probation officer
  • Submitting to random drug tests
  • Attending substance abuse or mental health treatment
  • Completing community service hours
  • Abiding by a curfew
  • Having no contact with victims or co-defendants
  • Paying fines and restitution

If a defendant violates any of their probation conditions, the judge can revoke probation and impose the original suspended prison sentence3. So while probation offers an alternative to incarceration, it still comes with strict requirements and the threat of imprisonment for non-compliance.

Parole Eligibility

Most South Carolina felonies are technically eligible for parole, with a few exceptions like murder and certain repeat offenses. Parole allows an incarcerated person to be released under community supervision after serving a certain percentage of their sentence.However, there’s no guarantee of parole. Release decisions are made by the South Carolina Board of Paroles and Pardons based on factors like:

  • The seriousness of the offense
  • The inmate’s prior criminal record
  • The inmate’s behavior and rehabilitation efforts in prison
  • The inmate’s risk of re-offending
  • Opposition from victims or prosecutors

If parole is denied, the inmate must serve out the remainder of their sentence up to the maximum imposed by the judge. Even if granted parole, the parolee must comply with supervision conditions similar to probation or risk being returned to prison.

Plea Bargains

Many criminal cases in South Carolina are resolved through plea bargains rather than trials. In a plea bargain, the defendant agrees to plead guilty, usually to a lesser charge or for a reduced sentence recommendation from the prosecutor. Plea deals can offer more certainty and often less prison time than risking a trial conviction, but they also mean giving up your constitutional rights to a jury trial, to confront witnesses, and against self-incrimination. Whether to accept a plea bargain is a weighty decision that should be made in close consultation with your defense attorney, taking into account the strength of the evidence against you and your likelihood of success at trial. Even if a plea deal includes a sentence recommendation, the judge is not bound by that recommendation and can impose any sentence up to the statutory maximum for the offense pleaded to1. That’s why it’s crucial to have a defense attorney who can advocate for you at sentencing and present mitigating evidence, even in plea cases.

Juvenile Sentencing

Defendants under 18 are generally tried in South Carolina’s juvenile court system, which focuses more on rehabilitation than punishment. However, juveniles accused of serious felonies can be waived up to adult court and face the same sentences as adults if convicted. South Carolina has no minimum age for waiver to adult court, meaning even very young children accused of serious crimes can be prosecuted as adults4. If your child is facing charges in either juvenile or adult court, it’s essential to have a defense attorney experienced in handling youthful offender cases and advocating for age-appropriate sentencing.

Capital Punishment

South Carolina authorizes the death penalty for the single offense of murder. If prosecutors choose to seek capital punishment, the defendant faces either death or life imprisonment without parole if convicted4. Capital cases involve a separate sentencing phase where the jury weighs aggravating and mitigating factors to determine if death is warranted. Aggravating factors include things like:

  • The murder was committed during the commission of another violent felony like rape, burglary, or kidnapping
  • The defendant has a prior conviction for murder
  • The murder was committed for financial gain
  • The victim was a child or elderly
  • The murder involved torture or physical abuse

Mitigating factors can include the defendant’s lack of prior criminal history, their age and mental capacity, any childhood trauma or abuse suffered, and their potential for rehabilitation4. Given the high stakes involved, it is absolutely critical to have a qualified and experienced defense team if you’re facing capital charges in South Carolina. Your attorneys must be well-versed not only in the guilt phase of a murder trial but also the unique issues and strategies involved in capital sentencing.

Appealing a Sentence

If you believe your sentence is excessive or improper, you have the right to appeal. However, the grounds for appealing a sentence are much narrower than for appealing a conviction. In general, an appeals court will only overturn a sentence if it exceeds the statutory maximum, violates constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment, or is based on improper factors like race, gender or religion1. The appeals court will not substitute its judgment for the trial judge’s as long as the sentence is within legal bounds. That’s why it’s so important to get sentencing right the first time, by presenting the strongest possible mitigating evidence and arguments to the judge. While an appeal is still an option, it’s an uphill battle and can take years to resolve.

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