South Carolina's juvenile justice system had a rocky year in 2020, from a Department of Justice report slamming state custody for endangering the youth in its care to a lawsuit against Charleston County's detention facility. Attempts at reform were slow-moving.
In 2021, state officials and advocates are bringing in outside help. The S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice is starting a three-year partnership with the Center for Children's Law and Policy, a national juvenile justice reform group.
The partnership has been years in the making, DJJ Director Freddie Pough said. He and CCLP Director Mark Soler joked that it'll be like a marriage.
"Till death do us part," Pough said.
DJJ handles more than 3,000 young people each year, typically detaining children who the court system rules have committed criminal offenses. Three county lockups, in Charleston, Richland and Greenville counties, also hold children before their trials.
State custody, which is frequently overwhelmed, involves five secure facilities, 43 county offices and 10 camps across the state.
In February 2020, a Justice Department report found that South Carolina had violated the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution for not providing reasonable safety from harm for the youths in DJJ's care, particularly due to use of solitary confinement.
Fights and assaults also were a common problem, the report found.
Pough said the DOJ report didn't motivate the partnership with the children's center, but it identified several issues they need to work on.
"It's prime time to change the culture at DJJ," Pough said.
Testing out reforms
The partnership will seek reform on a local level. Starting in May, Charleston County will be the test site for the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative.
It's a national program by the Annie E. Casey Foundation geared at using data-driven solutions to reform juvenile detention, and this will be the first time it's been attempted in South Carolina. So far, the program has been used in 39 other states.
The Center for Children's Law and Policy will help Charleston County officials — law enforcement, defenders, prosecutors and other stakeholders — examine juvenile adjudication and detention to make sure the system's focus in on rehabilitation.
Soler said CCLP staff members will assist in collecting data on children in detention and examining whether the detention screening instrument is working to only detain children who can't safely remain in the community.
"Overutilization of detention does not help a young person if they're not a threat to the community," Pough said.
Soler agreed, adding, "Incarceration is really the greater risk for children who have had minor offenses."
If a young person who only has committed minor offenses is kept alongside children who have committed more serious crimes, detention can become more of a "school for crime," Soler said.
Charleston was chosen as the first South Carolina site because DJJ felt the county had already been working toward reform but needed a boost of resources and the help of experienced reformers.
The Charleston County Sheriff's Office has said a new detention facility for juveniles will be built by the end of 2021. In July 2020, an advocacy group sued former Sheriff Al Cannon and other former top officials regarding negligent care toward the children held in the agency's old facility.
These actions were launched following an investigative report by The Post and Courier on conditions there.
The newspaper found some juveniles were warehoused in their dorms 23 hours a day with no outdoor time and little classroom time each week. Others were locked in a "wet cell" for hours at a time, a room which jail officials denied was being used at that time. The youths were moved to a floor in the adult jail until a new facility is completed.
The Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative could make Charleston "a beacon for the state, and potentially a beacon for the nation," Pough said.
Within DJJ itself, Pough said he wants to shift the focus from punishing children when they break the rules to incentivizing and rewarding good behavior.
That kind of culture shift is hard to do, Soler said.
If children in juvenile detention are overly punished, they might take away the lesson that "might makes right," Soler said.
"Young people are there because they're troubled. Not because they're bad kids," Soler said. "Many of the young people locked up across the country are locked up because they pissed off an adult, and that's not a good enough reason."
Josh Gupta-Kagan, a University of South Carolina professor who specializes in juvenile justice, said there's always been a dichotomy in how children are treated in the justice system.
"Are we treating them as kids who are going through a tough time, or are we going to treat them as criminals who need to be punished?" Gupta-Kagan said.
He said juvenile justice needs many more services on the front end to help children avoid entering the criminal justice system, or if they do, diverting them to community-based programs that can provide mental health and other treatment.
Detaining children before trials needs to be much more selective. "We're not talking about hardened criminals," Gupta-Kagan said.
Asking the 'why'
Family Court Judge Michèle Patrão Forsythe said Charleston is ready and excited for juvenile justice reform. A small working group has discussed reforms for years, but it hasn't been able to get off the ground, she said.
Forsythe handles several juvenile dockets each week. She tries to focus on the reason behind an offense, such as trauma, a difficult home life or bad influences.
She said far too many young people are incarcerated for offenses that aren't too serious, such as running away from home. Some children are detained because their families are unable or unwilling to take them back.
If there's not enough help for youth early on, Forsythe said, some could become permanent members of the criminal justice system.
"We're not asking the 'why' enough," Forsythe said.
She sees many juveniles cycle in and out of her courtroom. She's known some for her entire five years on the family court bench in Charleston.
Forsythe said her job has grown harder with hearings being conducted virtually due to COVID-19. It's common for children and their parents to have bad connections when calling in to the hearing or not showing up at all.
On one Monday docket, Forsythe waited 20 minutes to start a hearing so a 16-year-old boy, ready to make a guilty plea for possession of a stolen car and not stopping for police, could log on with his mother. After they listened to DJJ's and the state's recommendation — probation, an order to attend school, a mental health assessment, a letter of apology, a restraining order from the car's owner and having a positive peer group — Forsythe talked to him one-on-one.
"How would you feel if someone stole your mama's car?" she asked, prompting him to think how it would affect every aspect of their lives. "Everything you do has a consequence."
In another virtual hearing, a 17-year-old boy pleading guilty for possession of a stolen car and refusing to stop for police was visibly injured, saying he had a broken wrist from being attacked while in custody. Forsythe ruled he could return to his family with an ankle monitor keeping him in the home as he awaited a local evaluation.
When asked, the teen told Forsythe he didn't know what grade of school he was in, or what grade he was supposed to be enrolled in.
He hadn't been to school in a long time.