In 2016, South Carolina passed consensus legislation to begin charging most 17-year-olds who get arrested in the family court system instead of the adult system.
The bill passed the General Assembly unanimously and earned the support of former Gov. Nikki Haley with the understanding that this is not a radical step. In fact, this legislation is in line with efforts across the nation. Most states have recognized that if 17-year-olds are considered minors to buy cigarettes or enlist in the military, it makes sense that the justice system be no different.
As a former prosecutor from the Manhattan DA’s office and the Director of the National Juvenile Justice Prosecution Center, I believe that this legislation makes sense on many different levels.
The Raise the Age law offers the state government an escape hatch: If the legislature doesn’t appropriate the funds needed to implement it, nothing will change. South Carolina would continue to be one of the handful of states that charge all 17-year-olds as adults when they get in trouble with the law.
Louisiana, New York and North Carolina changed their juvenile codes soon after we did. With conservative champions, Raise the Age bills are gaining momentum in those three states. Teenagers most often get arrested for minor offenses, so the juvenile system offers a better response and a more effective means of accountability and rehabilitation than the one for adults.
The status quo of charging 17-year-olds as adults burdens our teens with criminal records. That doesn’t just hurt the kids — it hurts all of us. Today’s 17-year-olds will eventually find themselves excluded from certain jobs and sent to the bottom of the applicant pile for others, all for mistakes made before leaving high school.
Anyone concerned about more serious offenses can be assured that 17-year-olds charged with Class A-D felonies (the four most serious classifications) will remain in the adult system. In a recent year, there were 5,632 warrants issued for 17-year-olds. Five out of every six of those warrants were for misdemeanors or ordinance violations, so this law is about how we’ll respond to the low- to mid-level offenses that are the most common ones committed by teenagers.
South Carolina’s juvenile justice system can absorb 17-year-old misdemeanants, largely due to long-term declines in juvenile offending. Over the last 10 years, there have been 43 percent fewer referrals statewide to the juvenile justice system (which now handles 10- to 16-year-olds), including a 64 percent drop in Spartanburg County, a 45 percent drop in Pickens County, and a 40 percent drop in Greenville County.
Those declines have led to fewer kids in court and fewer kids in detention. Our system has the capacity, even if nothing else changes.
Despite these facts, the Department of Juvenile Justice put forward a budget arguing for a new $8 million detention center, a new $12 million evaluation center, and $1.5 million in renovations to the long-term facility in Columbia, with an additional 567 more government employees to boot.
Putting any additional taxes toward new buildings and toward hiring hundreds of employees to staff those buildings won’t help public safety. Locking up our kids — especially the ones with low or moderate risk of re-offending — actually increases their likelihood of getting arrested again. Exposing young offenders to others who have broken the law — maybe even more serious ones — makes our juvenile jails into training schools for crime. So, instead of padding government budgets, let’s implement this policy by shifting some of the savings from adult jails into community-based programs that are proven to reduce recidivism by strengthening the family’s capacity to manage their child.
The DJJ proposal ignores the fact that other states that have raised the age in recent years have not seen an explosion in costs, and some even spend less now in total on juvenile justice than previously Moreover, South Carolina’s juvenile justice budget has not fallen commensurate with the decline of youths in the system, indicating there is significant underutilized capacity.
It’s not conservative to allow a state agency to torpedo a policy that improves public safety and keeps families together by giving lawmakers unwarranted sticker shock. Let’s move forward with Raise the Age.
Susan Broderick is director of the National Juvenile Justice Prosecution Center and an assistant research professor at Georgetown University. She served as assistant district attorney in New York from 1989-2003.