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Editorial: Make second chances possible for youthful offenders

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Department of Juvenile Justice (copy) (copy)

Under the threat of a lawsuit the Justice Department, the S.C. Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice must improve conditions for juvenile offenders by reducing its reliance on solitary confinement at its central lockup in Columbia and providing better mental health care for youths. File

South Carolina’s adult prison system isn’t the only one in trouble. The Department of Juvenile Justice could soon come under federal oversight if it doesn’t make significant changes.

Under the threat of a lawsuit, the Justice Department recently put DJJ on notice that it must reduce its reliance on solitary confinement, provide better mental health care for incarcerated youths and do a better job of protecting them from each other, among other things. Federal investigators contend the deprivations suffered by juvenile offenders add up to a violation of their civil rights.

DJJ Director Freddie Pough has no time to waste because he must start resolving problems in less than two months. DJJ’s Broad River Road lockup in Columbia houses only about 110 youths, so that should help make reforms quicker and more manageable.

Mr. Pough can and should immediately order correctional officers to halt all fights — the DJJ logged 134 fights and 99 injuries in an 11-month period ended last year — and stop putting youthful offenders in solitary confinement for minor offenses such as drawing “tattoos” on one another or playing cards.

DJJ has been making some headway on solitary confinement by using “cool off” rooms instead of barren concrete cells. It is also moving away from a centralized incarceration model to house youths in juvenile facilities closer to their homes.

Some of the tougher problems are interrelated and may require legislative action. The state simply lacks in-patient psychiatric care for seriously ill juvenile offenders, some of whom end up in solitary confinement for extended periods.

As reported by The Post and Courier’s Fleming Smith and Sara Coello, one young man with disabilities and a history of mental problems spent five months in solitary confinement.

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It is inhumane to lock a mentally ill youth in a dank cell for 23 hours per day. He belongs in a mental institution, but the state Department of Mental Health has refused to accept him into its system, and many private psychiatric clinics won’t accept youths with a history of criminal behavior.

The Mental Health Department should be required to accept incarcerated youths who can’t get the treatment they need from DJJ, or to start a specialized unit for treating youthful offenders.

Clearly, the incarceration of youths should be geared toward rehabilitation. That requires having guards specially trained to deal with youths — and having enough of them. Federal investigators found that staffing fell by nearly 30 percent between September 2017 and May 2019 while the juvenile population rose.

A juvenile justice reform bill in the Legislature addresses many of the inadequacies cited by the Justice Department, but that help can’t come soon enough. Mr. Pough clearly must first tackle the problems he can fix, then look to lawmakers for help.

Mr. Pough would be wise to do all he can to quickly improve conditions and stave off a federal lawsuit. A similar action against DJJ in the 1990s led to years of federal oversight, which ended in 2003.

Avoiding a lawsuit is important, but the greater goal should be getting youthful offenders the help they need to reenter society as productive citizens.

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