Free Pass or Tough Love for Juvenile Offenders?

February 22, 2012

Investigative Reports

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ConvictsJuveniles who plead guilty to non-violent and other minor offenses could have their cases dismissed if they pass a probation program run by family courts, under an S.C. House bill introduced this month.

Rep. Jim Harrison, R-Richland and the House Judiciary Committee chairman, told The Nerve last week that he believes his bill (H. 4737) would help reduce the number of young repeat offenders in the state. He said the program would be similar to state drug court programs in which charges are dropped if participants meet certain requirements during a specified period.

“If a person enters this program, it reduces the possibility of that person entering a DJJ (state Department of Juvenile Justice) facility,” Harrison said. “The drug-court analogy is kind of what swayed me – that it could be good if used properly.”

But a least one victim advocate opposes Harrison’s proposal.

“It’s a very bad idea,” Laura Hudson, executive director of the nonprofit South Carolina Crime Victims’ Council, told The Nerve. “The biggest sin of this bill is that it masks the repeat offender.”

Hudson said there is nothing in the legislation, for example, that would prevent a juvenile offender who completed another diversion program known as juvenile arbitration from participating in the program proposed by Harrison.

The bill, introduced on Feb. 7, was referred to the Family and Probate Laws Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, though a public hearing on it has not been scheduled.

Under Harrison’s proposal, juveniles previously convicted as juveniles or who pleaded guilty to crimes classified under state law as violent, such as murder, rape and robbery; and other serious felonies would be ineligible for the diversion probation program.

Juvenile offenders who plead guilty or no contest to eligible crimes, such as relatively minor property crimes, could be allowed by a family court judge to enter the program, though it could be done only once. Judges could dismiss the cases if the offenders met the requirements of their probation, which would be for a specified period.

Although the requirements are not specified in the bill, Harrison said the conditions could include staying in school and getting counseling or treatment for drug or alcohol problems.

Under state law, youths who commit crimes under the age of 17 can be tried as juveniles, though a family court judge can allow them to be tried as adults in circuit court for certain serious crimes. If convicted as juveniles, offenders can be imprisoned no longer than their 21st birthday.

In South Carolina last fiscal year, 18,114 cases were referred to the juvenile justice system; of those, 9,980, or slightly more than half, were prosecuted, Department of Juvenile Justice records show. Of the prosecuted cases, 4,542, or slightly less than half, involved probation.

The projected number of juveniles who could be eligible annually for the diversion program under Harrison’s bill and the estimated yearly statewide cost to run the program are unknown.

Harrison, an attorney, said he drafted his bill based on the recommendations of DJJ staff. Contacted last week, Elizabeth Hill, the agency’s general counsel, told The Nerve that the legislation doesn’t go easy on juvenile offenders.

“It’s not a no-consequence, get-out-of-jail-free card,” said Hill, a former juvenile prosecutor in Richland County. “It’s probation. It’s not probation-lite.”

Hill said the legislation is needed, in part, because some solicitors in the state “without statutory authority” convinced family court judges to set up similar diversion programs.

Although Hill said offenders could go through the diversion probation program only once under Harrison’s bill, she acknowledged that a juvenile who successfully completed a juvenile arbitration program could be eligible later for the probation program.

The difference between the two programs is that in a juvenile arbitration program, a solicitor has the option of allowing a first-offense, non-violent charge to be dismissed on the front end of the process; under Harrison’s bill, a family court judge would have the authority to dismiss a guilty plea for that type of offense at the tail end.

Hudson, of the South Carolina Crime Victims’ Council, said she believes that only solicitors should be involved in diversion programs. Family court judges don’t have the time because of heavy caseloads to handle the type of program that would be established under Harrison’s bill, she said.

Hudson said she also is concerned that the proposal would allow solicitors to plea bargain felonies down to misdemeanors to make certain juvenile offenders eligible for the program, adding, “It would happen for the privileged and the people with money.”

Harrison said the list of crimes cited in his bill making a juvenile ineligible for the program likely would be increased as the legislation goes through the committee process. He also said he would be the “first one to say to pull it (the bill) down” if “there are existing programs that are better than this.”

Hill described Harrison’s proposal as “just another tool in the tool box that family court judges could have.”

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org.