The South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice has been fighting an uphill battle for the last several years. When Judge Bill Byars took over the department six years ago, it faced a federal lawsuit claiming DJJ was operating below the constitutional minimal levels. Byars says his first priorities were to end the lawsuit and to stop warehousing the kids per Governor Mark Sanford’s behest. Since taking over, Judge Byars is happy with the direction of the department. “The fear is if you put a whole bunch of juvenile delinquents together you probably end up with worse kids then you had when they came in,” said Byars.
“So that’s what we were working to stop. Our school district was not accredited, it is now. We’ve been Palmetto Gold for five years. We have gotten over a thousand kids their G.E.D. Things have been approving rather rapidly here at DJJ.”
However this year, the budget crisis is crippling his department. Byars has cut almost 300 employees and several programs because of the lack of funds. He says he cannot cut anymore costs and remain in agreement with the conditions of the lawsuit he inherited. And he says there’s a real concern that DJJ in South Carolina could be taken over by the federal government. According Byars, “We can go this far, but anything further than that will run the risk of endangering our children we have in our care, endangering our staff and endangering the public when they go home worse then when they came and also South Carolina will be in danger of losing control of the Department of Juvenile Justice and having it run by a federal court, which is not the preferred way to do it.”
Because of this, DJJ has been granted permission by the South Carolina Budget and Control Board to operate through deficit spending for the remainder of the year.
Byars explained, the decision by saying, “The member of the Budget and Control Board who were there were very gracious to us. They acknowledged the great changes that the staff and this agency have made in the past five years, the great progress we have made in turning these children around and producing a better result. So they granted to us the right to deficit spend for the balance of this year.”
Judge Byars also says that he put together a group of individuals to dissect President Barack Obama’s stimulus bill to see what his department might be eligible to receive. He stated that he is confident DJJ will be able to benefit from the bill saying, “I do anticipate that we (DJJ) will be seeking funding from it although I do think there will be lots of people from around the state and around the country seeking funding for that.”
“I do think we will be successful in getting some because our reputation now is as an agency that is able to make change and squeeze its dollars tight.”