Bill Byars, who took over authority for the state's youngest criminals seven years ago, is credited with turning around a system that the federal government said ignored their constitutional rights. But budget cuts now threaten that progress.
The retired family court judge is speaking out in advance of the Legislature's deliberations on next year's emaciated spending plan in an effort to persuade lawmakers to spare the state Department of Juvenile Justice.
The state ended a 13-year court battle 10 months after Byars took office in 2003 with a pledge to drop the number of repeat offenders, reduce overcrowding, make the Juvenile Justice facilities less violent and provide the youths with adequate meals, housing and medical treatment. The federal government had filed the suit over conditions throughout the system.
Since 2003, the number of children living at Juvenile Justice facilities dropped from 1,600 to fewer than 1,200, and Byars gets credit for improving conditions agency-wide.
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"There is a limit on how far down you can go," Byars said. "It is by doing things differently and better that we dropped the numbers. But as we lose more money, we can no longer do the things we were doing better and differently. It's a race."
Falling tax collections have forced $1.6 billion in state budget cuts, from $6.7 billion to $5.1 billion, in less than two years. Juvenile Justice, like other agencies, has seen budget cuts of more than 25 percent.
Byars was one of Gov. Mark Sanford's earliest Cabinet appointees. The governor said Byars' work pulled the agency out of trouble.
"Judge Byars and his team at DJJ stand as not only a testament to public service and hard work in the face of incredible odds, but also as an example of the good that can come from dedicating one's efforts to providing opportunities for the next generation - and especially those young people who society oftentimes casts aside," Sanford said in a statement.
To keep the standards high, Byars contracted Columbia consultant Karen Chinn to evaluate the Juvenile Justice Department every two years following the conclusion of the lawsuit.
Byars said he chose Chinn because she had once written a report on the agency that was so critical that the agency barred her from making it public, Byars said.
Chinn's latest report, released in September, concentrates on the agency's Broad River Road Campus, the focus of the decade-plus lawsuit where most of the juveniles are housed.
Chinn reported that the state's severe economic downturn threatens the progress made since 2003, and that the agency has the potential to drift toward "unconstitutional conditions."
Byars kept Chinn's concerns temporarily at bay, arguing successfully for the Legislature to allow the Juvenile Justice Department to run a deficit through the last fiscal year, which ended June 30.
Since then the agency has been subjected to more budget cuts, along with other government programs.
Byars said he is worried that budget cuts will cost him the gains he has seen at the agency and start causing the number of juveniles at the agency's facilities to rise.
He will plead with the Legislature to keep funding intact so the agency can continue to provide programs such as one that provides intensive supervision for juveniles as they re-enter society.
Supervised juveniles have a 42 percent lower rate of recidivism than youths without supervisors, according to national data. Byars said he wanted to expand the number of supervisors in each county, but he had to put those plans on hold.
That is one example of the measures Byars said he will work to maintain, but he faces a tough battle for money as legislators weigh the requests from other agencies.
Byars said the consequences for his agency are serious if it does not receive the resources needed.
"We're liable to be in a situation that crime will go up again," Byars said.