HORRY COUNTY, S.C. (WBTW) – Fewer South Carolina inmates are serving life sentences for murder compared to 50 years ago as changes in prosecution lead to fewer sentences and advocates continue calls to end the practice. 

“I don’t know how anyone could say that someone doesn’t change in 30 years, or that someone hasn’t paid their debts in 30 years,” said Allie Menegakis, the founder and executive director of South Carolina for Criminal Justice Reform. “Even individuals that have been sentenced to death.”

About 13% of the prison population in South Carolina is serving a life sentence, according to The Sentencing Project, placing the state in the middle of the pack nationally. The largest rate is in Utah, at 35%.

Nationally, more people are being sentenced to prison than ever before. There were about 200,000 people in state and federal prisons in the 1970s, according to The Sentencing Project. By 2019, that had hit 1.38 million.

The number of people serving life sentences has also increased from 34,000 in 1984, to now more than 203,800 nationwide. That change may be fueled by states such as Utah and Nevada, which have more than quadrupled how many people are serving life sentences since 1970. Overall, 25 states had more people serving life sentences in 2020 than in 1970. 

In 2020, there were 2,436 people serving a life, or what is considered “virtual life,” sentence in South Carolina.

In South Carolina, about one in 10 prison inmates are serving a life sentence, with 40% of those over the age of 55. Nationally, the amount of “elderly lifers” is 30%.

Life sentences are required in some situations in South Carolina, like if someone has already been convicted of what is considered a “most serious crime,” such as murder, first-degree burglary, drug trafficking, check fraud or embezzlement.

“A lot of people find themselves charged with these kinds of things, not because they’re bad people, but because they themselves are victims of things,” Menegakis said.

That includes mental illness or substance abuse. Menegakis said people can be charged with crimes they committed while trying to fund their addictions, which can then lead to life in prison. 

“The problem with mass incarceration or most incarceration is that it does not solve the problem that we are seeking to solve, which is making our towns safe and reducing crime,” she said.

Instead, she said it leaves people with fewer tools than they entered with, making them more likely to reoffend.

Life sentences are especially cruel, advocates say, for young offenders, who “age out” of violent crime.

About 44.5% of violent offenders are 19 years old or younger when they are admitted to prison for the first time, according to statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Justice. About 32.2% are admitted for the first time when they are between the ages of 24. 

People are most commonly imprisoned for drug trafficking. Homicide, aggravated assault and kidnapping charges make up about 3.1% of the imprisoned population. 

People are most likely to commit crimes when they are in their late teens or mid twenties, with those chances peaking at 19 for robbery, and 20 for murder, according to The Sentencing Project. Those chances are halved by the time a person reaches 30.

Keeping people in prisons for life, Menegakis said, is a pointless waste of money.

“What purpose is it serving, if not rehabilitating?” she said. “It’s not necessarily reducing crime, but it is pure punishment for the sake of punishment.”

Those funds, she said, would be better used on funding programs in underprivileged areas as a way to decrease crime and prevent substance abuse.

Serving life can have other consequences, as well. People age and develop health issues faster in prison, she said, and more crowded facilities can lead to recreation programs being cut. No hope of getting out means no incentive for good behavior, and could lead to people lying to leverage being a jailhouse informant for better living conditions. 

Nationally, 91% of people serving life sentences are doing so for a violent crime, according to The Sentencing Project, and 57% have been convicted of murder. In Georgia, children as young as 13 have been sentenced to life in prison. 

There have been four cases that have ended in life sentences within the last year in the Fifteenth Circuit Court – which covers Georgetown and Horry counties – according to Solicitor Jimmy Richardson. While most of the time those sentences are reserved for murder cases, he said that they have also been used for people who rape a child under the age of 11.

One of those life sentences went to Earl Gaddis, a North Carolina man who killed Sylvester Bellamy, Jr., in 2018 at a public restroom in Myrtle Beach. The others include Waccamaw Bingo Hall shooter Derrick Rivera, and Jamar Williams, for the murder of Jason Smith. Roger Barr received life under the “three strikes” law, according to Richardson, due to participating in previous armed robberies before a Georgetown man’s death.

Richardson said prosecutors can push for a lighter sentence if a defendant chooses to plead guilty to avoid a trial. He said he doesn’t know how many times that has occurred.

“Now, if you go to trial, you are probably going to get life imprisonment, especially if you go to trial and you don’t have a reason to go to prison,” Richardson said. “You are rolling the die, and you are going to get a worse sentence.”

He’s also seen fewer life sentences being pursued in the last few decades, which he attributes to an influx of drugs in the area, leading to more crimes. A case where a drug user robs and kills a drug dealer might not deserve a life sentence, he said, but someone who breaks into a home and kills a family would – and perhaps get a death penalty, as well.

The plea deals are more attractive to the state if a case involved drugs and witnesses aren’t willing to come forward, Richardson said. 

Within the last year, he recalls 14 cases where the defendant was facing life in prison and took a plea deal, leading to sentences that range from 14 to 43 years. 

Reducing that sentence gives a defendant hope of eventually getting out, he said. Judges are also more lenient toward deals if a defendant pleads, and defense attorneys can argue that their client has bettered themselves between the time of the trial and the plea. 

Richardson said the sentences can be a tool.

“I see mandatory life almost as like in drugs, an enhancement-type deal,” he said. 

Menegakis, however, said that life sentences should be abolished.

“It’s disgusting, is what it is,” she said. “There is a reason why our founders made liberty as one of the core principles of our Constitution, you know, just like life…what is life if you don’t have any freedom?”