A new report from the Children’s Law Center reveals that Greenville is one of the harshest places in the state for children who skip school, miss curfew or who run away from home. These behaviors — known as “status offenses” — are unique to children. These offenses violate the law only because the person committing them is a minor.
South Carolina is one of a shrinking number of states that still incarcerates children in secure detention centers for status offenses. According to the report, South Carolina locks up a significant number of children charged with status offenses before their case is even heard in court. Research show that incarcerating children — even for very short periods of time — increases the likelihood they will have further involvement in the juvenile justice and adult prison system.
More than three-fourths of children detained for status offenses in South Carolina are from just four counties — Charleston, Richland, Berkeley and Greenville. The report cites Greenville’s easy access to a secure detention center as one reason for the county’s overuse of secure detention for status offenders. Unlike most counties that rely on a centralized state-run juvenile detention center in Columbia, Greenville opened its own brand-new juvenile detention facility in 2013. Notably, Greenville had the highest number of South Carolina youth admitted to detention in Fiscal Year 2013-14.
As we are an organization working to stop the unnecessary incarceration of children, these numbers concern us.
Youth who commit status offenses have often experienced severe traumatic experiences. For example, a child might run away or skip school or come home after curfew to avoid exposure to violence or sexual assault at home. A child might be truant because of family illness or social anxiety. We might find that a child labeled “incorrigible” is dealing with family substance abuse issues. Incarcerating a child who expresses these types of needs doesn’t help the young person get better. These behaviors may very well be normal responses to the issues a youth is dealing with — calls for help that we as adults should respond to with something better than punishment.
The report recommends that the state invest in community-based family services to reduce the incarceration of status offenders. In these programs, trained staff members work directly with families to address the underlying issues of why a child acts out. Greenville, like most communities, lacks an adequate crisis response system to support families that require immediate assistance. Currently, there is often a long wait period for families to receive services which may lead families to seek assistance through the juvenile court system, which in turn increases the likelihood of a police officer or a judge removing a child from the home.
Community-based programs 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-programs, like the Youth Advocate Program in Greenville, can effectively work with five to six young people and their families for that amount of money and help these youth and their families in ways that incarceration cannot.
Greenville can lead the state in reducing the number of young people it locks up for status offenses. To do this, we need to build up community-based supports that strengthen families. Incarcerating youth for status offenses does not help children in need and costs too much for no return — and in many cases, a negative return – on the investment.
We all want kids to stay in school, contribute to their families and communities, and be safe at home. To help achieve that for the county’s neediest young people, Greenville should implement policies to divert more status offense cases from court and prohibit children from being jailed. We should invest in community-based services that support families and provide effective alternatives to the court system.