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South Carolina's juvenile justice system could get major overhaul

Legislation passed by a Senate subcommittee aims to prevent children from being incarcerated and improve treatment at facilities.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina's juvenile justice system could soon get a major overhaul. 

Lawmakers are working on legislation that could significantly change how children are prosecuted and jailed for committing crimes in the state.

Two bills that passed a Senate Judiciary subcommittee Thursday aim to prevent children from being incarcerated and improve treatment at facilities. 

Counsel to the Senate, Bob Maldonado said at the meeting, “the juvenile justice reform act, S. 53, provides multiple amendments to the code that deals with juveniles going through the system, before they get arrested all the way through post arrest.”

Attorney John Elliott supports the legislation and told the group of senators it helps children that commit status offenses – like truancy or running away. “There’s a lot in this legislation that addresses those kids and diverts them from the system and most importantly keeps them from going to jail,” said Elliott.

The bills would limit solitary confinement, create a bill of rights for children, outline mental health treatment, and focus on alternate civil programs for children instead of jail.

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DJJ Interim Director Eden Hendrick helped write the legislation. Hendrick has been named as the next director of the agency and is waiting to be confirmed by the Senate.

A lot of it will help DJJ, allow us to really focus our efforts on rehabilitating the youth that need to be in our system," Hendrick said Thursday. "Everyone understands there are youth that do need to be in the system but everyone also understands there are a lot of children who get caught up in our system for things they should not be in the system for.”

USC law professor Josh Gupta-Kagan spoke to lawmakers too. He said the bill could help diminish the school to prison pipeline in South Carolina and mirrors reform efforts across the country. He pointed to states like Georgia and Utah that have "similar statutory reforms to limit the number of children that are incarcerated unnecessarily.”

The South Carolina Commission on Prosecution Coordination (SCCPC) raised concerns on how the alternate civil programs would be implemented and the fiscal impact of the programs, but agreed to work with senators on changes before the judiciary committee takes up the bills on Tuesday. 

Supporters of the bills are racing against the clock and hope the Senate passes them before the General Assembly’s cross over deadline of April 7. Any bills that don’t pass at least one chamber by that date will be dead for the rest of the year.

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