18-year-old being held at Richland adult detention center denied transfer back to DJJ (copy) (copy)

Youths incarcerated at the Department of Juvenile Justice Broad River Road facility in Columbia take time out after school to play basketball outside some of the older dormitories. File/Staff

Three years ago, South Carolina lawmakers passed a bill that raised the maximum age from 17 to 18 that teenagers could be considered adults in the criminal justice system.

The measure goes into effect July and will affect the likely thousands of teenagers across the state who will be accused of a crime in coming years.

Between 2010 and 2015, an average of 17,000 kids, ages 12-17, were arrested by South Carolina law enforcement, according to data collected by the Campaign for Youth Justice, a Washington, D.C.-based juvenile offender advocacy group. 

Exceptions to the new law include teens younger than 18 accused of the most serious crimes including murder, rape and any felony for which someone could be sentenced for 15 years or more behind bars.

The Raise the Age Law boasted overwhelming bipartisan support and marked a signature achievement for the state's embattled S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice.

An overarching goal of Raise the Age is to keep teen offenders out of adult jails and afford them an additional year of eligibility when it comes to rehabilitative programs.

It was also an opportunity for a state agency steeped in controversy to recommit to even more reforms within DJJ.

In practice, DJJ officials and advocates are hopeful that the Raise the Age law will expand the use of alternative diversion programs and allow judges more flexibility when considering incarceration for a young offender.

Some of those measures include ensuring probation is more effective by hiring more staff and requiring more training, paying closer attention to juveniles' mental health needs, cutting back on pre-trial detention, and ensuring youths who are being held are separated from adult offenders.

Efforts like these, Raise the Age law proponents said, will lessen the strain on detention centers and, ideally, reduce recidivism.

"It's important we treat children like children," said state Sen. Gerald Malloy, D-Hartsville, who authored the bill.

"Building strong children instead of having broken men and women, that is critically important," he added. "These are our children, and we will profit or pay for whatever they become."

Three years in the making

Though the Raise the Age law was signed in June 2016, it could only become law if legislators and juvenile justice officials could secure the funding necessary to make the transition possible. They had a July 1 deadline. The solution came in the form of lawmakers inserting a temporary law into the state budget this year, which Gov. Henry McMaster signed last month, that allows for excess funds to be spent on Raise the Age-related efforts.

But the funding solution this law hinges on is a temporary one and is only good for the fiscal year. After that, new funding will need to be acquired. Malloy and a select committee of lawmakers will determine where that money comes from. 

Beyond a possible funding hiccup after the money runs out, officials still don't know exactly how this law will be executed. Though this is a legislative objective that has been three years in the making, the specifics on implementation remain vague.

DJJ employees and agencies received their own instruction via an official agency memo on June 7. Even when the July 1 deadline comes and goes, DJJ and other officials will be issuing guidance and implementation strategy to courts and law enforcement agencies in the months ahead, said DJJ spokesman Jarid Munsch.

"We've long looked at Raise the Age as an opportunity ... We know we (DJJ) have to come to the table with Sen. Malloy to make sure we have a sustainable and responsible plan," Munsch said. "There's a lot of logistics. All of the intricacies of the plan have yet to take shape."

Strife

Currently, one central detention center in Columbia, the Broad River Road Complex, detains all youths serving time in DJJ.

In line with the bigger-picture objectives of the Raise the Age law, DJJ officials hope to open three regional facilities across the state in hopes of keeping youngster offenders closer to their homes and communities and, as a result, reducing recidivism in those who are detained long term.

Jeree Thomas, who is the policy director with the Campaign for Youth Justice in Washington, D.C., worked with Malloy and scores of other lawmakers and juvenile justice officials through the pre-implementation process.

"This is not a partisan issue. It's a kids issue. It's a public safety issue," Thomas said. "When you provide alternatives to detention, you actually have better public safety outcomes in the long run."

Beyond attempts at so-called regionalization, DJJ officials are assessing post-release programs and rehabilitation. The renewed efforts come on the heels of several years of systematic disarray within DJJ.

In October 2017, an 18-year-old North Charleston man was shot and killed just a week after he was released from DJJ custody. Nine months before that, DJJ came under fire when the S.C. Legislative Audit Council published a report that slammed the agency for failing to adequately monitor paroled youths, among other concerns.

DJJ has also had to weather a civil rights investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division. Violent riots in 2015 and 2016 predated the audit, released in January 2017, and investigation.

DJJ's director at the time, Sylvia Murray, had occupied her post just shy of two years before resigning a day after the audit's release. The federal investigation, led by the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division, is probing how the agency evaluates and incarcerates youth with disabilities was prompted after officials there accused of failing to thoroughly investigate allegations of foul play in the death of a teenager who died at a remote wilderness camp for youth offenders.

When contacted by The Post and Courier, a spokeswoman for the Department of Justice declined to confirm whether the investigation was still ongoing.

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Reach Michael Majchrowicz at 843-937-5591. Follow him on Twitter @mjmajchrowicz.

Michael Majchrowicz is a reporter covering crime and public safety. He previously wrote about courts for the Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton, Massachusetts. A Hoosier native, he graduated from Indiana University with a degree in journalism.