S.C. Department of Corrections Director William Byars understands leadership under pressure. From dealing with lawsuits, low staff morale and layoffs to shrinking budgets and high expectations for systems reform, his track record as director of both the state’s juvenile and adult corrections agencies are examples of progressive leadership that moves our state forward.

William Byars also understands the power of partnership to produce positive change. In 2003, when the S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice had been mired in class action litigation for 12 years, Byars led efforts to engage Clemson University in a partnership that inevitably helped restore faith in the state’s juvenile justice system. The partnership allowed Clemson to fulfill its land-grant mission of public service, offering its best resources to apply research-based knowledge and present innovative, best-practice approaches to problem solving. Byars was open to examination, constructive criticism and new ideas, rather than being defensive about system flaws and resistant to change.

As a result, DJJ experienced systemic transformation and a paradigm shift in organizational culture that remains evident today.

Now, as Byars heads the S.C. Department of Corrections, he faces issues that almost perfectly mirror those of DJJ a decade past: non-violent offenders serving short sentences being mixed with serious offenders; heavy focus on security without a balanced emphasis on rehabilitation and transition of offenders back to community; lack of community-based programs to support prevention, intervention and aftercare initiatives; and prison facilities acting as a breeding ground for gang recruitment. And again, tight budgets, limited resources and resistance to change are added challenges.

There is little doubt that South Carolina’s 2010 sentencing reform efforts have effectively reduced the prison population. The strengthening of penalties for violent crimes, while offering alternative sentences for nonviolent crimes, has been long overdue in our state. But hopefully we have learned that it is the combination of research-driven criminal justice policy and innovative agency leadership that helps us capitalize on systems improvements and move towards sustainability in corrections reform efforts.

It is no small achievement that SCDC is now able to focus more of its resources on making higher security prisons safer. But what is even more promising is the department’s focus on innovative, best-practice programs, such as intensive supervision for youthful offenders.

New programs like the Self-Paced In-Class Education (SPICE) program are providing educational, vocational and career-readiness training for offenders, preparing them for transition to communities.

Through a partnership with Clemson for professional development and gender-responsive services, SCDC is responding to the impact of high staff attrition rates by focusing on leadership development and fostering esprit de corps throughout the 26 institutions that make up the corrections system.

Byars certainly understands that systems change takes time. He has recruited experienced and innovative newcomers to blend in with a core of forward thinking, hard working and dedicated professionals who have begun making necessary changes in the way the Department of Corrections does business. He also realizes there’s no time to waste when agencies need bold leadership to prioritize needs, rally resources and support, and take action.

This is leadership worth appreciating and emulating. And it’s the kind of leadership we all should support.

Jorge Calzadilla is executive director of Clemson University’s Youth Learning Institute.