On a late night in early April, Charleston police arrested a man during a routine traffic stop — an incident they say illustrates a chronic problem for law enforcement in South Carolina.

Officers saw a car driving with headlights off shortly before 10:30 p.m. April 1 near Mary and Elizabeth streets on the East Side. The driver, Wayne Stanley, had a warrant out for his arrest and wasn’t allowed to operate a motor vehicle, police said. His brother, Shamar, was also in the car, along with a loaded pistol. The smell of marijuana wafted from the vehicle, police said.

Shamar Latrell Stanley, 19, had been released from jail about an hour before. He’d spent several months behind bars on suspicion of a September 2019 double homicide in North Charleston before posting bail.

For Charleston Police Chief Luther Reynolds, the Stanley case illustrates glaring issues with the criminal justice system in South Carolina. The chief said Shamar Stanley immediately violated the terms of his release when he was found with his brother, a known felon, and a loaded gun.

Reynolds and other experts said gaps in state law, including lack of enhanced penalties for firearms violations, lack of pretrial services, a lack of truth in sentencing in state-level courts and other issues, create an environment in which the worst criminals know they face little punishment even as they continue committing crimes.

“What really scares me is that we as a community and we as a criminal justice system somehow get used to this,” the Reynolds said. “That is insanity.”

The chief said he fully supports criminal justice reform efforts that keep low-level offenders out of jail. Drug and veterans’ courts, and other diversion programs are valuable tools, but at some point the criminal justice system has to be able to take a defendant’s history into account to keep the most dangerous criminals off the streets, the chief and others said.

“At some point, some people do belong in jail,” Reynolds said. “There’s a small number of people that are dealing drugs, that are carrying handguns. They’re brazen. They don’t care about anybody but themselves.”

Dangerous criminals

Charleston Police Capt. Andre Jenkins is all too familiar with the problem.

He and his officers deal with a significant number of repeat offenders who continue to commit crimes while out on bail.

“This is an ongoing issue,” Jenkins said. “When it hits home even harder is when it’s a violent crime. Once they get out of jail, they go back into the communities and continue that cycle of violence.”

Authorities point to criminals like Thomas Lawton Evans, who kidnapped a 4-year-old girl shortly after being released from prison in early 2018. He’d been serving a 10-year sentence for burglary and armed robbery and was released after about eight years on Feb. 1, 2018.

On Feb. 13, Evans brutally assaulted the child’s mother before kidnapping the girl and sexually assaulting her during what authorities called a rampage across South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama.

He received four consecutive life sentences in connection with the crimes for charges brought in both federal and state court.

Earlier this year, the girl’s parents sued several South Carolina law enforcement agencies — S.C. Department of Corrections; state Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services; and the Spartanburg, Charleston and Berkeley county sheriff’s offices — saying they ignored signs that Evans continued to show violent tendencies and warned authorities that he didn’t think he could control himself if released.

On Feb. 1, 2018, he was released and placed on parole, but state officials did not enter Evans into a public database indicating he was a parolee, the suit said.

Evans also failed to report to a parole officer within 24 hours of his release from prison, violating the terms of his parole, the suit claims.

Data from the state Department of Corrections for 2014, the most recent year available, shows about 30 percent of inmates reoffend within five years of their release from South Carolina prisons.

Restructuring the system

For authorities, cases like Evans’ show why the criminal justice system needs to be reformed in order to be better equipped to supervise the worst criminals and hold them accountable.

These offenders do not belong to any particular racial, ethnic or gender background, Jenkins said. The only common denominator is they share a certain mindset that locks them into a criminal lifestyle.

Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson said the state’s bail bond system needs a “total restructure” to focus on all offenders who are dangerous.

“Most importantly, we need to say what we mean and do what we say,” Wilson said.

Charleston’s top prosecutor is advocating for changes to the state’s bail bond structure and for authorities to implement what’s known as truth in sentencing.

Under state law, anyone convicted of a violent crime, like murder, manslaughter and criminal sexual conduct, is required to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence.

But there are many crimes not classified as violent in South Carolina, Wilson said, citing the examples of strong-armed robbery and certain domestic violence charges.

“If someone beats me in the face and robs me, to me, that person’s dangerous, but they’re not charged with a violent crime,” the solicitor said.

These crimes are not subject to the 85 percent rule, meaning offenders can be released very early into their sentences, Wilson said.

“If we say you’re going to get sentenced to 10 years, we need to know what that means,” she said. “Does that mean 8 and a half? That’s fine, but too many times right now, when people get sentenced in court, nobody in the courtroom can say what kind of sentence they’re going to serve.”

Wilson is pushing for reforms to the state’s criminal justice system, including to the bail bond structure.

Proposed legislation by S.C. Sen. Sandy Senn, R-Charleston, would impose an additional 5 year sentence on anyone who commits a crime while out on bail or personal recognizance, and would increase the minimum bail amount from $25 to $200 — or 5 percent, whichever is greater.

The idea is to make repeat offenders take bail more seriously and give authorities more tools to revoke violent repeat offenders’ bail.

But the bill has languished since it was introduced to the state Senate in 2019. It remains in the Committee of Banking and Insurance, according to Statehouse records.

“It’s not to keep people that aren’t dangerous in jail or people who are poor in jail because they can’t pay a bondsman,” Wilson said. “The goal is to keep people who’ve proven their willingness, their tenacity, to commit dangerous crimes and to obtain guns illegally. I’ve seen situations where bond conditions are being ignored. It’s about consistency.”

Another proposal is to shore up the state’s firearms laws by increasing penalties each time someone is charged with the unlawful carrying of a firearm, something both Wilson and Reynolds say is needed in the Palmetto State.

“If I steal a candy bar, there’s enhancements for the second, third, fourth time I do that,” the chief said. “But if I’m caught with an illegal gun, it’s the same every time.”

A federal model

For Reynolds, part of the solution lies in looking to the federal criminal justice system, which he and others say is better equipped to handle career criminals.

Whenever possible, the chief said, officers look for ways to steer cases to federal court, where defendants may face harsher punishments and where cops say offenders’ demeanor changes.

“The federal side is a lot more effective at putting people in prison for a long time,” Reynolds said. “I’m not saying every case should go federal, but the most egregious offenders need to be federally prosecuted.”

Fourteenth Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone, president of the National District Attorneys Association, said the structure in federal court is different in two major ways: there’s no parole and there is greater consideration of a defendant’s criminal history from a hearing on bond consideration up through sentencing.

“Most people, if they get charged with a crime, they’re going to stay home,” Stone said. “They’re going to be afraid to go outside, much less commit a crime. The good news is you’re dealing with a small number of people willing to violate that.”

The solicitor, like others, said he’s a proponent of drug courts, veterans courts and other diversion programs that help keep nonviolent offenders and other eligible defendants out of prison, and for fairness in the bond setting process.

No one wants to keep a defendant in jail indefinitely while they await trial, Stone said.

“But you also have to recognize that there are people that embrace this (criminal) lifestyle,” he said. “The good news is that you’re dealing with a small number of people. When we look at sentencing reform around the nation, they want to reduce the time in prison with no recognition at all for someone’s criminal history.”

And it is in accounting for a person’s criminal history that the federal system excels, said Wilson, who previously served as an assistant U.S. attorney. It is not inherently better than the state court system. Instead, it has better tools that allow judges, prosecutors, probation officers and others to take those criminal histories fully into account.

There are many tools state courts can borrow from the federal system, Wilson said, including what she called a “safety valve.”

Such a tool would use a person’s criminal history to more adequately determine their risk, she said. If there’s a defendant who got caught up in a situation and the crime they’ve committed is out of character for them, and if they meet criteria, the safety valve allows judges to be lenient when appropriate, despite the federal system’s often harsh punishments.

A safety valve can release a judge and defendant from a mandatory minimum sentence that isn’t appropriate under the circumstances.

“The feds have some very stiff penalties, but more important than having a stiff punishment is having a punishment that defendants know is going to be true,” Wilson said.

And the solicitor said she isn’t against having supervised release of inmates. The federal system, while not having parole, does supervised release.

“It’s often helpful to people who’ve been incarcerated,” Wilson said. “What we’re saying is early release with no consistency or predictability is bad for all involved.”

For cases that meet criteria to be moved to federal court, the advantages are well documented in the eyes of South Carolina law enforcement.

Last month, several tri-county officials gathered in Mount Pleasant to announce the second phase of arrests in an ongoing federal case: Operation Lowcountry Line, which targeted members of a violent North Charleston street gang authorities said was supplying drugs and causing violence around the area.

Everett McMillan, an assistant U.S. attorney for South Carolina who prosecutes drug crimes, said part of the federal system’s success is that it is set up to take on fewer, but bigger targets.

“Oftentimes, a federal drug conspiracy allows us to target a large group of people so we can disrupt and dismantle an entire drug trafficking organization in one case rather than pick people off,” McMillan said.

Justin Holloway, another assistant U.S. attorney for South Carolina who handles violent crimes, said in the state system, if someone is charged with their first offense, sometimes even for distributing narcotics, the defendant may only serve 30 percent to 40 percent of a sentence.

“In the federal system, you know they’re not going to get paroled,” Holloway said. “They’ll serve at least 85 percent of that sentence.”

Because of these factors, local authorities turn to federal agencies when it comes to large-scale, intensive investigation like Lowcountry Line, which has named 23 defendants so far.

The key to that success, McMillan and Holloway said, is cooperation with local agencies.

Looking forward

For S.C. Rep. Gary Clary, R-Clemson, the key will be finding ways to balance the need to keep the public safe through strong law enforcement and meaningful, appropriate penalties for crimes, and to strengthen existing programs aimed at getting offenders rehabilitated and keeping them on the right path.

“If I could wave a magic wand, we would basically just have the prisons for the worst of the worst and focus all our money, all our resources, on rehabilitating people,” Clary, a retired judge, said. “I certainly believe that we need to look very closely at the criminal justice system.”

During his time serving as a circuit judge in South Carolina’s state courts, the representative said he was faced with tough decisions, especially when it came to setting bond or not for violent criminals.

“Every defendant is entitled to a bond unless they pose a flight risk or a danger to the community,” Clary said. “It’s incumbent on the system to move that case along. It reaches a point in time where if someone’s been in jail for a long time and there’s no movement toward trying the case, then a judge has to hear a reconsideration of bond.

“There are always ways for the general assembly to look at ways that we can help the system.”

Lawmakers reformed the state’s domestic violence laws in the wake of The Post and Courier’s Pulitzer Prize-winning series “Till death do us part,” including harsher punishments for abusers and loss of gun ownership rights for those convicted of domestic abuse.

Clary said it could be worth the General Assembly looking at the state’s unlawful possession of a firearm statute, a misdemeanor which carries a sentence of up to 1 year in jail and has no enhancements.

The state’s bail system could also benefit from a deep probe, and officials should seek to bolster existing programs aimed at helping offenders get off — and stay off — the criminal path, he said.

For Reynolds, the Charleston chief, legislative changes like these and other measures aimed at giving the state’s criminal justice system more teeth to deal with violent offenders, while also continuing to fund and strengthen rehabilitation and diversion programs, are needed now more than ever.

“There isn’t an easy answer, but when you put a face on this, when you sit down with families who’ve just lost someone, I take that seriously,” the chief said. “We’ve got bullies that are carrying guns and they need to be held accountable.”

As for Shamar Stanley, the man accused of two murders, he’s awaiting trial in the Charleston County jail. His bail was revoked April 24 and no trial date has been set.