When people think of the juvenile justice system, they aren't thinking of keeping kids out of jail.

“Our focus is always protection of the community and restoration for the victims,” said Anne Seymour, managing assistant solicitor for the 9th Judicial Circuit's Family Court. “We also want to make sure that this juvenile doesn't re-offend and graduate into the adult system.”

And that's why they have a host of alternatives to confinement.

A report released last week by the Annie E. Casey Foundation shows that South Carolina is among the majority of states — 44 including the District of Columbia — that have seen a substantial decrease in youth confinement between 1997 and 2010. Our state's decrease was 42 percent. That means fewer juveniles on the path to becoming long-term criminals.

The state Department of Juvenile Justice and the Solicitor's Office use a variety of tools to keep youth offenders out of jail. Of course, these alternatives aren't an option for the nearly 10 percent charged with violent crimes, but a lot of youths can be diverted from detention centers.

That starts with trying to keep the offender at home before the trial, but if they can't be watched by a parent, grandparent or other relative 24 hours a day, there's another option that keeps the kids in the community and out of detention centers. These Jail Removal Homes are smaller group-home-type settings that keep them out of jail. “That's been a tremendous help,” Seymour said.

There's an eight-week service in which counselors work with the whole family in the home to address a variety of factors. There are other types of placements that offer mental health treatment, and mentors can also be assigned to single-parent homes, Seymour said. “Research shows time and time again that working with children within their own environment, their own families, is where we're going to have the greatest result,” said Lesa Timmerman, deputy director for community services at DJJ.

Other programs include assigning a shadow to a youth at school to help with behavior modification.

When remaining in the home is not an option, the DJJ also has wilderness camps and marine programs — the latter include locations in Beaufort and Georgetown. These are community residence programs where juveniles can take courses, get their GEDs and have access to mental health and substance abuse counseling.

Keeping juveniles in jail is expensive. Keeping them out has great rewards. “The benefit, of course, is that they're not all grouped together learning bad behavior from each other,” Seymour added.

Because overall confinement is declining, Timmerman said, DJJ can put more emphasis on prevention. “The numbers are providing us this grand opportunity that we haven't had in a very long time,” Timmerman said.

That means they can focus on finding ways to stop kids from getting into the system in the first place.

Reach Melanie Balog at mbalog@postandcourier.com