The former director of South Carolina’s youth prisons agency says she’s proud of how far the agency has come in the last ten years.
Department of Juvenile Justice director Margaret Barber will officially step down Friday after more than four decades at the agency — including the last four years at the helm.
“After you’ve worked in state government for 45 years, it’s probably time to go enjoy a little bit of life outside of work,” she told South Carolina Radio Network earlier this month. “And I’ve worked for so long, it was just a decision that I struggled with. But I finally decided it was probably time to give time to grandchildren and see more sunsets and sunrises than I see now.”
Barber is rare among Cabinet directors in that she spent her entire career at the same agency, first starting as a juvenile probation officer in 1968. She eventually worked her way up through the department, becoming the York County director, regional administration for the Upstate, and then chief of staff to former DJJ Director Bill Byars.
When Byars left the agency to move to the Department of Corrections in 2011, Gov. Nikki Haley stayed in-house to promote Barber. For Barber, it was a reward for more than four decades at the same agency.
But she did not initially even plan on working in juvenile justice. “I took it as we all take jobs when we first get out of college,” Barber said. “We take our first job because we’re anxious to get an apartment, to get a car, and we’re anxious to be on our own. So I took the first job that I was called for… and never had any idea that it would lead to this.”
She has seen a turnaround in morale at the massive agency with more than 1,400 employees and 1,800 volunteers statewide. Ten years ago, DJJ was in the process of settling a lawsuit that claimed the agency was keeping minors below constitutionally minimum levels. Its funding was about to be slashed during the economic downturn in the latter half of the decade. State leaders have given former agency director Bill Byars much credit for restoring public confidence in the agency, but Barber was recognized.
Gov. Haley praised Barber’s and Byars’ work as “one of the biggest success stories in the country,” when she promoted her in 2011.
Barber has largely held the course since taking over. She said the biggest factors in the agency’s success have been more resources this decade, helped by a partnership with other agencies that she says did not exist while she was working in the agency’s lower tiers.
One noticeable difference has been in job training. The Haley Administration has focused on improving the state’s business climate across all agencies as it tries to recruit industry to South Carolina. DJJ is no exception. Workforce development and job readiness have been a much more prominent part of the agency’s rehabilitation the past four years. That includes the 2012 opening of the Store of Hope in Columbia, which sells an array of products to the public that were crafted by juveniles living in the DJJ system, and a Job Readiness Training Center that opened in 2013.
“We know the importance of a job when they go home,” he said. “If they have a job, then they have some money in their pocket. They’re less likely to get involved in the criminal justice system if they have some kind of gainful employment.”
Haley has not yet named a successor to replace Barber, who revealed her plans to leave in mid-November.
As for Barber, the Fort Mill native said she has no immediate plans for the next chapter in her life beyond spending more time with her family. She told the Rock Hill Herald that she expects to stay active with consulting work even after leaving DJJ.