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USC law professor, local advocacy group presents case for juvenile justice reform to S.C. legislators

The Columbia Star - 4/21/2017

More than a decade after emerging from federal court oversight, the S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) once again faces significant difficulties, according to new reports, and the state advocacy group that sued the agency in 1990 is starting a new push for legislative intervention. Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities, Inc. (P&A) is calling for measures to improve conditions at the state's juvenile justice facilities and address inadequate treatment for children in custody. A 2017 state Legislative Audit Council report has described DJJ as facing serious challenges, said Gloria Prevost, executive director of P&A.

Another new report, "Effective Solutions to South Carolina's Juvenile Justice Crisis: Safety, Rehabilitation, and Fiscal Responsibility," provides a blueprint to build a model juvenile justice system? one that reduces repeat criminal activity by rehabilitating child offenders in smaller facilities, keeping children and juvenile justice staff safe, and more efficiently spending tax dollars.

The report was written by Professor Josh Gupta- Kagan of the University of South Carolina School of Law, P&A senior attorney Nancy McCormick, and attorneys Robert Meriwether and Jase Glenn of Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP.

The review of the state's juvenile justice system and successful reforms in other states calls for reducing reliance on large facility expansions and focusing instead on more evidence-based interventions. The report also emphasizes the need for better mental health services for children in the juvenile justice system.

"Children are not adults," Prevost said. "The focus needs to be less on hiring more guards and using solitary confinement and more on developing proven systems that increase safety, provide treatment, and reduce recidivism."

P&A in 1990 brought a class action against the Department of Juvenile Justice, asserting that overcrowded and understaffed jails and poor conditions were unconstitutional. DJJ guards used tear gas regularly to discipline children. The state failed to provide a "minimally adequate level of programming" to help children rehabilitate, the lawsuit alleged.

The result was known as the Alexander S. opinion, written by U.S. District Court Judge Joseph Anderson in 1995 following five years of litigation. While it was a critical first step to improving conditions for children, Judge Anderson noted that the task of building a model juvenile justice system was left to "the state of South Carolina, through its duly elected representatives."

"We have lost many of the improvements from the lawsuit," Prevost said. "We need to transform the juvenile justice system now. The many juveniles with disabilities need to receive services to succeed."

The authors of this paper are now calling on the General Assembly to make several reforms, which they believe will reduce recidivism rates for children committed to DJJ, save the state money, and turn South Carolina's juvenile justice system into a model for other states. Those reforms include the following:

Limit the size of DJJ's Broad River Road Complex.

Limit the total number of children who are actually committed to DJJ by placing limits on DJJ commitments for lower-level offenders, such as truants and runaways.

Eliminate or sharply reduce the use of secure evaluation centers for DJJ.

Promptly place children with serious mental illnesses and intellectual disabilities at appropriate treatment facilities, rather than in DJJ facilities.

Enhance mental health treatment for those children who do remain in DJJ custody.

Improve the data available for DJJ to help its leaders and state policy makers be better equipped to make informed choices about the direction of DJJ.

"We have a unique opportunity to build a model juvenile justice system. We can model the successes of other states like Missouri and Georgia, which through reforms have obtained better results and saved money in the process. We are urging our legislators to use the knowledge and resources we have to make the necessary reforms," Prevost said.

Established in 1897, Nelson Mullins has more than 500 attorneys and other professionals with offices in California, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and West Virginia.

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