North Charleston officials expressed outrage this week that a gun-toting homicide victim had been back on the street less than a year after a robbery conviction. That should surprise no one familiar with the state's problem-plagued youthful offender program.
South Carolina's Youthful Offender Act, known in legal circles by the shorthand "YOA," is designed to give young criminals, even those who commit violent acts, a second chance and allow them to move beyond their bad mistakes. But historically, these offenders are the least likely to succeed under community supervision, with a 56 percent failure rate.
Criminals who break the law in their teens can work the youthful offender system into their 30s, avoiding longer prison sentences for their later crimes, police and probation officials said. In essence, critics say, the system can make it advantageous to screw up at an early age. Some 1,900 offenders are now in that system.
Authorities have blamed young offenders for much of the bloodshed across South Carolina, feeding gangs and fueling waves of retaliatory violence. When these offenders fail, people can die.
That happened in North Charleston Monday when 19-year-old Dionta RaShad Cochran was gunned down in broad daylight.
Investigators found evidence that Cochran, a felon, was armed with a pistol at the time of his death, even though he was on "intensive probation" after serving just 10 months of a YOA sentence for a strong-arm robbery last summer, police said. Released in April, Cochran landed back in jail last month, accused of firing a gun into a Charleston home, state records show.
North Charleston Police Chief Jon Zumalt said that if the system were working, Cochran would not have been set free once again to return to a cycle of violence.
"We are in the trenches living with this day after day," he said. "We feel like the justice system is failing and we are left to clean up the mess."
The Post and Courier highlighted the YOA program's failings in its August 2008 series "Law and Disorder," which detailed how South Carolina's troubled probation and parole system allows habitual offenders to continue preying on the public. Though top lawmakers pledged improvements in response to the series, state budget woes led to another $3.5 million and 80 agents being slashed from the probation and parole agency, which already was down 130 agents since the late 1990s.
The department now has 400 agents overseeing about 48,000 offenders throughout the state, said Jodi Gallman, community affairs director for the agency.
Gallman said offenders still are receiving adequate supervision and that comments to the contrary are not accurate. Offenders under intensive supervision, like Cochran, must have weekly contact with their agents and show compliance with conditions such as schooling, paying restitution for their crimes or substance abuse treatment, she said.
"You can't prejudge what a person is going to do, and no law enforcement agency can be with them 24-7," she said. "But they are getting the attention they need."
Those sentenced under the Youthful Offender Act receive indeterminate sentences that can stretch up to six years. Many first-time offenders are placed in the state's "shock incarceration" system that can have them back home in as little as 90 days. Those who don't get shock incarceration usually spend about eight months in prison, and then must complete a year of community supervision.
The majority can't do it. In Charleston County last year, 61 percent of youthful offenders failed to abide by the terms of their release. Success was even more elusive in Spartanburg, where the failure rate was 88 percent, according to state records.
John Burrow, an associate professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina, said recidivism rates of 55 percent or greater are unfortunately in line with many places in the country. But the number of probation agents overseeing this flock in South Carolina seems woefully inadequate in terms of monitoring and helping to rehabilitate these offenders, he said.
"There is no way you can positively supervise that many offenders given that number of agents," Burrow said. "That is a significant caseload of well over 100 each. ... Anyone who tries to make an argument that is doable is making a false argument."
Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen said the state needs to take a hard look at its youthful offender system. Mullen, Zumalt and others also have pushed several measures to crack down on habitual criminals. Among other things, police want the power to conduct warrantless searches of those on probation and parole. They also want judges to have the power to deny bail to violent offenders charged with new crimes. So far, these proposals have stalled in the Legislature.
"Something has to happen," Mullen said. "Youthful offenders are driving the great percentage of violence we are dealing with. The age of these violent offenders is getting younger and younger, and they are using this YOA program as a means of circumventing the system and staying out of prison to commit more crimes."