The idea was simple enough: Lower the number of youth who end up in South Carolina’s prisons by raising the age that teenagers can be tried as adults from 17 to 18.
It was a win-win for lawmakers and advocates alike — decrease the number of teenage inmates detained alongside adult offenders while offering youths a chance at rehabilitation in a more forgiving environment.
Praised by lawmakers from both parties, the bill passed with ease through the Statehouse and was signed into law by then-Gov. Nikki Haley in June 2016. It's slated to go into effect in 2019. South Carolina was the 43rd state to pass such a law.
While the idea on its surface sounds straight-forward, lawmakers and advocates say getting to the point of implementation is anything but. With a main juvenile detention center in Columbia that already houses some 2,000 youths, officials last year were tasked with determining how many 17-year-olds would be transferred from the adult system to the Department of Juvenile Justice.
In a fiscal impact report sent to legislators last month, DJJ officials outlined what it needs from the state to make the move a reality, including the hiring more than 100 new staffers and the construction of a new facility. It's a process that could cost taxpayers upwards of $16 million, according to the report.
What's similarly important is the timing. The beginning stages of enacting this legislation come at a critical point for DJJ, an agency in desperate need of proving it is capable of steering itself back on course amid a mounting civil rights investigation in addition to a scathing audit from the S.C. Legislative Audit Council in January.
Now, a system roiled in controversy must brace for the arrival of even more juveniles.
Chance at reform
For the law to be successfully implemented the state has until July 1, 2019 to ensure necessary funds are in place.
It's difficult to say just what preparations for this shift are underway inside the walls of DJJ. Acting Director Freddie Pough, through a spokesman, declined to be interviewed for this story.
The department has fallen under intense scrutiny in the past year following the early 2017 LAC audit, which indicated the department did not adequately train officers, leading to outdated security practices. The audit was preceded by violent riots in 2015 and 2016.
Sylvia Murray, who took over the helm of DJJ in March 2015, resigned her post the day after the audit was released. Since then, DJJ had made most of the 71 recommendations outlined by the LAC. But criticism of DJJ was renewed earlier this month after the federal government opened a formal investigation into the agency, probing how it evaluates and incarcerates youth with disabilities.
As lawmakers work to implement the Raise the Age law, it poses an entryway for the embattled agency to recommit to reform, said Jeree Thomas, policy director at Campaign for Youth Justice in Washington, D.C.
"Raising the age, I think, presents the opportunity to talk about larger reforms," Thomas said, "and to put into perspective (that) there needs to be additional changes to make sure DJJ can implement the law and service young people."
A broader conversation
For the advocates who have long pushed for a Raise the Age law in South Carolina, its passage serves as an indicator that perhaps a broader conversation about how to best rehabilitate young offenders is on the horizon.
Micah-Blaise Carpenter, an English teacher at North Charleston High School, said she sees it regularly: students facing disciplinary action who disappear from classrooms and end up incarcerated.
Five decades ago, it became unlawful in South Carolina for any person to "disturb in any way ... the students or teachers of any school." The broad and far-reaching Disturbing Schools Law states that anyone found guilty, including minors, will face fines or up to three months in county jail.
Like Carpenter, who's also on the board for the Carolina Youth Action Project, some of the loudest proponents of Raise the Age say the most vital takeaway of this new law has little to do with incarceration and everything to do with rehabilitation.
"Unfortunately, we don't have very many, if any, community-based alternatives across the state," she said. "And I think that's one reason why young people are poorly served in our criminal justice system."
While the Raise the Age law does represent a platform for juvenile justice reform for advocates like Carpenter, the legislation does not mandate the creation of alternatives.
For teens whose cases are heard in family court, they have access to services and programs potentially available closer to their hometowns and otherwise not available to them in the adult system.
"We want to make sure people who are being charged under age 18 are getting services and getting what they need locally," said Sue Berkowitz, who oversees the S.C. Appleseed Legal Justice Center in Columbia. "Locking them up is not the way to deal with it. ... What we don't want is to see kids being arrested as adults."
The last thing that's needed for these teenagers is another place to lock them up, Berkowitz said.
When it comes to implementing Raise the Age, Berkowitz said she fears DJJ is prioritizing where to put the juveniles over how to help them.
In its report sent to lawmakers last month, DJJ asked for nearly $11 million for the construction of a new evaluation facility.
"This is an opportunity for South Carolina to do right by our kids, and when this bill was (passed), it was to make sure we didn’t put our children in prisons," Berkowitz said. "We need to make sure we don't lose this opportunity."
Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Hartsville, who spearheaded writing the law, said he is against the idea of building additional DJJ faciltiies, explaining that new holding sites would counter the bill's central purpose.
If new facilities are built, "we'll send people there," he said.
"We need to work on developing kids in their communities not far from their homes. We need to work on getting them educated," Malloy said. "What we're talking about is giving children a chance."
Moving forward, Malloy said, a next step might consist of assembling all those involved — other lawmakers, advocates, DJJ officials — and stress implementation of the law as a legislative priority.
"Over time," he said, "do we want to pay now, or pay later."