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Riley calls anew for anti-crime reforms, published 01/23/09

COLUMBIA — Law enforcement officers and mayors tired of a deluge of criminals plaguing their communities came together here Thursday to work up a plan for persuading the Legislature to sign off on new laws.

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley called the coalition together and presented it with a body of proposed bills that would give law enforcement more authority to search criminals out on probation and parole, put those who attempt murder behind bars for life and make gun laws tougher, especially for drug dealers.

The proposals, eight in all, are aimed at creating a criminal justice system that offenders will take seriously, members of the coalition said.

"Most criminals don't fear the system," said Reggie Lloyd, director of the State Law Enforcement Division. "We pay a price for that, and we're paying in human lives and misery every day."

Lloyd and state Attorney General Henry McMaster joined Riley's team from the Lowcountry — Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen, 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson and Folly Beach Public Safety Chief Terry Boatwright.

About 30 officials statewide turned out for the meeting at a law firm across the street from the Statehouse, including representatives from Harleyville, Columbia, Greenville, Rock Hill, Florence and Sumter.

Riley began a push for new crime-fighting tools more than two years ago, but even with allies such as Republican Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell and Democrat Sen. Robert Ford, both of Charleston, the ideas did not make it into law.

This year Riley decided on a new course of action with the coalition. The goal is for a unified statewide push to convince legislators of the reasons the new laws are needed.

To organize, the officials in attendance signed up for one of three tasks.

Mullen asked them to split up into groups: one that would keep the rest informed about the bills as they move through the legislative process, one to come up with strategic approaches to make sure the bills don't stall along the way, and a third to mobilize the community to attend meetings and put pressure on lawmakers.

"The only way we lose is to let inertia win," Riley said.

Several of the bills passed the Senate last year, only to languish in the House and specifically its Judiciary Committee.

Sen. John Scott, a Columbia Democrat who served his 16th year on the House Judiciary Committee in 2008, said a major problem at the core of the crime-fighting package is the potential to stomp on civil rights.

"That's the difficult part. We want criminals caught but we need to make sure law enforcement doesn't use excessive force," Scott said.

One especially controversial bill regards granting authority to law enforcement officers to search parolees and those on probation with or without a warrant.

Wilson, the solicitor for Charleston and Berkeley counties, said the coalition needs to stress that people on probation and parole are prisoners who are serving their sentences outside a jailhouse.

"These are things our Legislature can do for our men and women in blue," Wilson said.