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Sentencing Law Needs Overhaul

Updated: May 17, 2018

Thomas Lawton Evans Jr., previously locked up for armed robbery, was released Feb. 1 on “community supervision” to a Spartanburg County apartment that authorities approved. He was apprised of a multitude of state services, assigned a caseworker and given a check-in date. Everything was by the book.

But Mr. Evans, 37, never showed up for the scheduled meeting with his caseworker.

He has since been accused of going on a crime spree, charged with beating a suburban Johns Island homemaker and kidnapping her 4-year-old daughter. Meanwhile, a Boiling Springs woman whose car he was driving remains missing. Mr. Evans is in federal custody.

Everyone from prison officials to the proverbial man on the street wants to know what went wrong, how a felon with a violent behind-bars record could have been released and what can be done to prevent something similar from happening. Some answers are emerging.

Mr. Evans was released from prison after doing 85 percent of his statutory 10-year sentence. But he also had 14 disciplinary actions against him, 11 in the past two years. And clearly he should have been charged for taking a fellow prisoner hostage just six weeks before his release, as prison officials reported.

Rarely, though, will solicitors take on such cases, according to the former prisons director Jon Ozmint, who said the real problem is the state’s “truth in sentencing law,” mandating that convicts serve 85 percent of their sentences. The reforms undertaken in the mid-1990s left prisoners with no chance for an earlier parole, therefore no incentive to reform, he said.

From Mr. Ozmint’s perspective “‘truth in sentencing’ created a monster.” As he sees it, the entire body of sentencing law needs an overhaul.

Mr. Ozmint’s viewpoint should not be ignored. And if solicitors refuse to prosecute prison cases, legislators need to create a mechanism to deal with prisoners who would pose a threat on the outside.

“It’s the most egregious case I can think of in my 20 years on the job,” said Peter O’Boyle of the state Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services, adding that the community release program has “generally worked fairly well.” The department oversees about 1,300 people at any given time.

Most law-abidin g citizens don’t know all about the intricacies of the justice system. They just want criminals locked up — out of sight, out of mind. But when a recently released prisoner is charged with serious crimes in a high-profile case, it becomes everyone’s business.

The enormity of the crimes for which Mr. Evans has been charged underscores the necessity for attention at all levels of the criminal justice system. The apparent shortcomings of the system say that, at the least, changes are needed to prevent the early release of clearly dangerous prisoners.

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