Our Department of Juvenile Justice is in crisis. And there is an urgent need to take immediate action to ensure that the youth and staff in our juvenile facilities are safe.
However, such punitive responses as adding razor wire, utilizing pepper spray and strip searches and calling in the National Guard are the wrong approach. These responses will not resolve the underlying problems or prevent further violence. In fact, they may be counterproductive.
Four significant destructive events since August indicate a serious problem with the system that cannot be blamed solely on the youth. Some youth were placed in solitary confinement for more than a month — an unconscionable length of time to keep a child locked up alone — after the Sept. 19 incident. That did not make the environment safer.
South Carolina would benefit enormously from a safety review by an independent expert. An organization such as the Missouri Youth Services Institute could conduct this assessment at no cost to the state.
The institute is run by the nationally recognized expert Mark Steward, who spent decades at the helm of the Missouri Division of Youth Services, widely considered one of the safest and best systems in the country. The institute uses a rehabilitative process to help young people make positive and long-lasting changes in their lives and reduce recidivism. It also establishes an organizational structure with clear lines of authority.
This approach has been proven to work. Only 7 percent of youth released from Missouri’s Division of Youth Services return to the juvenile or adult system within three years, compared to rates of 20 percent to 70 percent in other states. Staff are 13 times less likely to be assaulted in Missouri, and youth are more than four times less likely to be assaulted. And 95 percent of youth earn high school credits.
Other juvenile justice agencies that have faced similar crises have worked with the institute to turn around their juvenile facilities.
South Carolina should act swiftly to ensure safety for youth and staff while promoting effective rehabilitation and better working conditions for staff. We must not let this crisis lead to short-term solutions that ultimately harm our youth and make our juvenile facilities less safe.