Working together to stop unjust incarceration of juveniles

Young men housed in the juvenile facility of the Charleston County Detention Center watch television in the common area. (Alan Hawes/File)

Over two years ago, the Charleston Area Justice Ministry held our inaugural Nehemiah Action Assembly at the St. Matthew Baptist Church in North Charleston.

More than 2,000 people gathered from diverse congregations across our community. We came together with a simple yet powerful goal: Let’s work together to stop the unnecessary and harmful incarceration of our young people.

The members of the Charleston Area Justice Ministry set this goal because we were concerned with crime and violence in our community. And we found study after study showing that how we treat young people who break the law can either divert them from lives of crime or further push them into a lifetime cycle of crime and incarceration. One of the worst things for arrested youth is to lock them in a detention center. These centers pull youth deeper into the criminal justice system and make them more — not less — likely to reoffend. That is why we asked elected officials and law enforcement leaders to commit to working with community members to reduce juvenile detention in the Charleston County Juvenile Detention Center by 65 percent by the end of 2014.

In the past two years since, we have had the privilege to work with law enforcement leaders on a task force that has worked diligently to reduce youth detention in Charleston County.

The task force’s main accomplishment has been to develop a tool to help police officers screen arrested children to identify whether they pose a safety or flight risk and thus make better decisions about whether they should be released or detained.

Although the task force’s reforms are already showing progress in reducing youth detention in Charleston County, there is much more we need to do for our young people.

A new report from Children’s Law Center reveals Charleston is among a handful of counties in the state that still detains a significant number of children for “status offenses” such as truancy, running away from home, or other behaviors that violate the law only because the person committing them is a minor. According to the report, more than three-fourths of children locked up in secure detention for status offenses are from just four counties — Charleston, Richland, Berkeley and Greenville.

In our conversations with law enforcement officials, prosecutors, judges and others who work in the system, we found a consensus that children who commit status offenses should not be held in secure detention.

However, we also heard judges, prosecutors and probation officers express frustration with the lack of community-based alternatives available for status offenders who fail to comply with the rules set by the court.

Community-based alternatives can effectively work with children and their families for a fraction of what it costs South Carolinians to incarcerate a child in a secure detention center.

According to the report, South Carolinians pay over $300 a day to incarcerate a child who is truant or runs away from home. That’s nearly $110,000 per child annually. Community-based alternatives can effectively work with five to six young people and their families for that amount of money, and help these youths and their families in ways that incarceration cannot.

In order to help children and their families succeed, we need to do two simple things.

First, South Carolina must invest in funding community-based alternatives to incarceration that can better accomplish what detention cannot — at a fraction of the cost.

Second, our juvenile justice system in Charleston must make the choice to send young people to these programs instead of sending them deeper into the system.

Through our community organizing efforts, we have come across numerous organizations already well positioned to provide alternatives to incarceration for young people right in the neighborhoods where they and their families live.

Sending young people to programs that provide both accountability and much needed supports in the form of mentoring, family strengthening, positive youth development activities, educational support and job training is the best way to ensure that children and families not only comply with court conditions, but even more importantly, get the resources they need to stay out of the juvenile justice system altogether.

It’s time to start investing in community-based alternatives for Charleston’s youth. The peace of our city depends on it.

The Rev. Nelson B. Rivers III is pastor of Charity Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston and co-president of the Charleston Area Justice Ministry. The Rev. Dr. Jeremy Rutledge is senior minister of the Circular Congregational Church in Charleston and co-chair of the CAJM’s Risk Assessment Instrument Task Force.