South Carolina’s inspector general says an effort to overhaul how juvenile offenders are rehabilitated in South Carolina was a failure and ultimately caused even worse problems at the Department of Juvenile Justice — including a February riot.
Inspector General Patrick Maley made the comments to a joint House and Senate panel last week. He said problems began when DJJ tried to use a “therapeutic” model to help rehabilitate teens at its facilities. The framework known as “Balance and Restorative Justice” (BARJ) was used by the agency beginning in 2012 to handle discipline at its facilities. The idea was to have a young offender meet with the “victim” of their actions, whether it was a staffer or another teen. The offender will then promise to come up with a punishment and the victim will have the option of accepting or refusing that punishment.
But Maley said the program ended up creating worse conflict at DJJ’s Broad River facility in Columbia between staff and juveniles who believed they could essentially avoid punishment for their actions. When combined with what he described as overworked and undertrained staff at the facility and gang members becoming more influential among the youth, Maley said the result was inevitable.
“Under the therapeutic model, you gain control by the way you interact with these kids,” he told the panel Thursday. “So if your interaction is nothing but friction, it’s a recipe for disaster.”
He said warning signs about the new model began surfacing in late 2014, but it took DJJ leaders until the following summer to fully realize the situation was getting worse. Maley did defend DJJ Director Sylvia Murray, who he said had tried to be innovative and was willing to change strategies when it became clear the plan was not working.
But some legislators on the panel were not so willing to let DJJ officials off the hook for what led to the February riot. The disturbance, the third serious incident at the facility within eight months, caused serious damage to several dorms and vehicles. In the riot’s aftermath, legislators learned DJJ’s police chief position had been open for nearly two years.
“What I hear you saying is we’ve taken people and introduced them into a situation where being in state custody has forced them to join a gang for their protection?” State Rep. Kirkman Finlay, R-Columbia. “And we’ve got state employees who are in danger and fear for themselves when they go to work? And it’s been going on for extended period of time?”
Much of the focus during Thursday’s hearing was on DJJ correctional officers. Murray said her agency still needs 23 new employee positions to help establish control. However, legislators and Maley seemed unsure if lack of staff was the root issue.
The inspector general said he thinks the problem is “more complex” than the number of staff needed. “Do you really need that many? Or is your core problem that you don’t have sufficient control and discipline and you’re compensating for that mistake with just more bodies?” he told legislators.
Finlay also questioned why more officers were needed now that DJJ houses less than a quarter of the teens at Broad River than it once did. Maley answered that DJJ now only houses the “worst” juvenile offenders, making the influence of gangs more powerful than in the past.
State Rep. Eddie Tallon, R-Spartanburg, was concerned about the 12-hour shifts and low salaries that DJJ officers have. “We all worked 12-hour shifts on days, but we didn’t work 12-hour shifts day after day after day like these do,” the former state narcotics agent said. “I don’t know how we expect these people to wear the number of hats they have to wear when we pay them like we do.”
DJJ Director Sylvia Murray said several changes have been made since February, including sending the most violent gang members to adult prisons and changing how officers interact with the youth.
The budget compromise negotiated this past weekend would include more than $1 million in additional funding for DJJ to offer raises to its staff. However, the language was added by legislators and was not initially requested by DJJ or Gov. Nikki Haley. State Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, expressed frustration the agency had not requested more help for high turnover and overstretched officers.