South Carolina, like all states, distinguishes felonies from misdemeanors based on the seriousness of the offense. Felonies are considered the more serious of the two and carry potential prison time. This article will discuss felony sentencing, probation, and parole in South Carolina. For information on misdemeanors, see South Carolina Misdemeanor Crimes by Class and Sentences.
South Carolina law divides many felony crimes into one of six felony classifications—referenced as Classes A to F. Class A is the highest felony level and class F is the lowest.
Felonies classified as class A, B, C, D, E, or F carry the following maximum penalties of incarceration. Examples of crimes that fall under each classification are noted in parentheses.
Other felonies—of which there are quite a few—don't follow the above classification system and are referred to as either exempt or non-specified.
Exempt felonies don't specify a penalty that matches up with a classification (A to F). Instead, the law indicates the penalty applicable for each exempt crime. Examples of exempt crimes include murder, manslaughter, incest, first-degree burglary, and failure to register as a sex offender. Exempt felonies specify a maximum sentence and sometimes a minimum sentence. For instance, manslaughter carries a minimum prison sentence of two years and a maximum prison sentence of 30 years. Certain exempt felonies allow the imposition of a life sentence. Aggravated murder is the only offense that carries the possibility of the death penalty.
Non-specified felonies don't indicate any penalty other than the crime being a felony. These felonies default to a sentence of between three months and ten years' incarceration.
South Carolina law also contains several sentencing enhancements for repeat felony offenders. A second or subsequent offense might carry a longer maximum sentence, impose a minimum sentence, eliminate parole or probation options, or extend the time period before becoming eligible for parole.
When imposing a felony sentence, judges can order a fixed term of imprisonment, payment of fines, fees, or restitution (compensation to a victim), or any combination of these penalties. Judges can impose any sentence up to the maximum set in law. If the crime has a minimum sentence, the judge can't sentence below the minimum.
Say a jury finds a defendant guilty of a class B felony, punishable by up to 25 years in prison. The judge can impose any fixed sentence up to 25 years. So, a first-time offender might get a five-year prison sentence, whereas an offender who has a rap sheet or committed the crime against a vulnerable victim could be looking at 10-, 15-, or 20 years. The fixed-term announced by the judge represents the longest time the defendant can spend in prison.
Most often, a judge will hand down a sentence that includes a term of imprisonment and then either "execute or stay" the prison sentence. Executing the sentence means the offender will go to prison. Staying a sentence means the judge will suspend the prison sentence and give the offender a chance to serve the sentence in the community on probation. Some offenses are not eligible for probation.
When a judge stays a prison sentence, the judge generally conditions the stay (suspension) on the defendant's agreement to abide by numerous probation terms. Basically, the prison sentence hangs over the defendant's head as an incentive to comply with probation. Conditions of probation might include remaining law-abiding, seeking or maintaining employment, attending treatment or counseling, and abstaining from alcohol and drugs. A defendant who violates the terms could have probation revoked and be sent to prison.
Once the defendant ends up in prison, the judge no longer has a say in the prisoner's sentence or release—those decisions are placed in the hands of the parole board. But, as noted above, the judge's sentence represents the longest time the defendant can be incarcerated. Even if the board doesn't grant parole, the defendant must be released after serving the sentence term set by the judge.
Felony offenders who end up in prison (now inmates) must be released at the end of their sentence or earlier on parole (if eligible).
An inmate becomes eligible for parole review after serving a certain portion of their sentence. The minimum amount of time that must be served depends on the convicted offense. For instance, an inmate convicted of a violent offense or sex offense must serve at least one-third of their sentence, and inmates convicted of nonviolent offenses must serve at least one-quarter. Offenses with mandatory minimum sentences don't qualify for parole review until the minimum term is served. Class A, B, and C felonies are not parole eligible.
Certain inmates can earn credits against (time subtracted from) their sentence of incarceration for attending educational classes, working, or maintaining good behavior in prison. Because these credits reduce the sentence term, they can also bump up an inmate's parole eligibility date.
Once eligible for parole, the inmate can apply for review by the parole board. If denied, the inmate can seek review again after one or two years depending on the convicted offense. An inmate granted parole remains under supervision for the remainder of their sentence, and any violation can return the inmate back to prison. Receiving a pardon from the governor is the only option for early termination of parole supervision.
Criminal statutes of limitations require prosecutors to file criminal charges against a defendant within a certain amount of time after the crime was committed or discovered. South Carolina is one of just a handful of states with no limitations on filing felony charges and only one of two states without limitations on filing any criminal charges. Prosecutors can file criminal charges at any time in South Carolina.
If you're convicted of a felony, you face significant penalties that can permanently change the course of your life. A felony conviction can mean prison time and a lifelong criminal record (very few felonies qualify for expungement in South Carolina). Speak with a local criminal defense attorney if you've been arrested for, charged with, or investigated for a crime.
(S.C. Code §§ 16-1-10. -20, -60, -90, -120; 17-25-20, -45; 24-21-410, -430, -440,-450, -48-, -610, -635, -670, -680 (2021).)