[reprinted from The State]
Tuesday, Feb. 10, 2009
DJJ cuts threaten to return agency to bad old days
BUDGET CUTS at the Department of Juvenile Justice threaten to make the agency a warehouse and breeding ground for young criminals once again.
That would be more than a tremendous step backward; it would be a travesty. Since taking over in 2003, director Bill Byars has done wonders at the agency that was once under a federal judge’s guidance and struggled with overcrowded dormitories, a dearth of preventive and rehabilitative programs and large numbers of youth-on-youth assaults.
Mr. Byars rightly asserts that, for many young offenders, DJJ is their last hope. The former family court judge has been a staunch advocate for the young people under his charge. His compassionate, innovative approach — he insists the kids not be treated as criminals, but as children who’ve made mistakes and need help — has turned DJJ around.
The agency encourages students to get their GEDs and operates a comprehensive after-school enrichment program that focuses on life skills, sports and fitness and spiritual and leadership development. Other signs of improvement include the construction of a transition house for girls nearing the end of their time at DJJ as well as new, modern dorms. Mr. Byars also has involved the community: The Friends of Juvenile Justice works with individuals and agencies — public, private and independent — to provide resources and attention to at-risk youth. The foundation raised about $3 million to build a center that provides space for family visits as well as rehabilitative sessions with mentors, tutors and social workers.
But much of the agency’s progress is in jeopardy. Since July, DJJ’s budget has been cut $23 million, nearly a fourth of its state funding. The agency has laid off 266 employees, including teachers, social workers and security officers. It has shuttered five group homes and two dorms and cut funds for 30 community after-school programs, 25 of which have closed.
Unfortunately, more cuts are likely. Mr. Byars said that could put the state in violation of a federal court order governing how the agency operates. That could result in another lawsuit. A prior suit filed in 1990 cost the state almost $5 million in legal fees. It was settled in 2003 when DJJ agreed to a long list of improvements.
We understand many agencies are facing severe, unavoidable, cuts in this poor economy. But even in good times, the Legislature has failed to adequately fund DJJ and Corrections. These agencies deserve proper funding to meet the mission they’ve been given.
But there are things lawmakers can do that would help even in times when they can’t provide needed funding. They could pass laws that would keep kids who don’t need to be locked up in the community. For example, South Carolina’s disturbing-schools law sends far too many youngsters to juvenile prisons for minor infractions, and needs to be changed.
The law unfairly and unwisely sends students who could be more effectively disciplined at school to DJJ, introducing them to the criminal element and increasing the chance that a student who could be turned around will become hardened, and be lost, with the next stop being an adult prison.
Lawmakers must be careful not to force DJJ to return to its old role as a junior criminal factory. In addition to providing adequate funding when possible, they must make available funds stretch farther by approving laws and policies that reduce the number of children introduced to the system.
South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice
4900 Broad River Road
Columbia SC, 29212-3552
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The South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice does not discriminate in any programs or activities on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, disability or age. THE FOLLOWING OFFICES HAVE BEEN DESIGNATED TO HANDLE INQUIRIES REGARDING THE NONDISCRIMINATON POLICIES: Title IX -- Inspector General's Office -- 803-896-9595 Title II & 504 -- Special Education Office -- 803-896-8484.