Opinion Extra

Legislature needs to fund SC law designed to reduce crimes committed by young people

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott gives a press conference in Florence to talk about the shooting of seven Florence area police, one of whom was killed, while executing a search warrant. Oct. 4, 2018
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott gives a press conference in Florence to talk about the shooting of seven Florence area police, one of whom was killed, while executing a search warrant. Oct. 4, 2018 jlee@thesunnews.com

I’ve experienced many changes over the years in our criminal justice system – some good, some not so good – and I am concerned that one law beneficial to our young people might slip through our fingers.

Three years ago, then-Gov. Nikki Haley signed legislation that raised the age at which a teenager accused of a criminal offense is tried in adult court. The age was upped from 17 to 18, except for serious crimes.

This legislation will result in more young people entering the family court system here in S.C., which is structured to address the particular needs of adolescents. This is the kind of law that can save a teen and turn lives around. Moreover, research has shown that age-appropriate services and placements can help keep young people from reoffending.

Granted, S.C. isn’t quite there yet. We’ve moved in the right direction by raising the age, but our legislature — as noble as it has been in advancing the bill — has not committed any funding aimed at implementing the law: Money that family courts and related programs must have to accommodate the influx of young people into the family court system. Without resources, teens won’t succeed, and the raise-the-age law will fail.

Treating adolescents as adolescents is a small price to pay to ensure that our communities are safe and that our young, at-risk teenagers who have committed non-serious offenses are put on a track to becoming productive citizens instead of lifelong criminals. I personally would rather pay for these young people to receive solid life counseling and related services now, than to have victims and taxpayers pay for their adult incarceration later.

When the law was passed, S.C. joined 45 other states and the District of Columbia in a bipartisan commitment to treating our youth as youth. The reform had strong support in S.C., and then last June, the National Sheriffs’ Association (of which I’m a member) resolved that anyone under 18 should start in juvenile court. This resolution was preceded by a similar statement by the Major Cities Chiefs’ Association.

S.C. can learn from states like Mississippi that have implemented raise-the-age laws over the last decade. These states’ experiences demonstrate that we need to ensure that the various local offices, courts, and programs that interact with young people in the criminal justice system have the resources they need to serve their respective populations. This includes law enforcement, judges, solicitors, public defenders, county juvenile justice offices, and more.

The Richland County Sheriff’s Department already works with 17-year-olds in our Youth Arbitration Program for first-time youthful offenders charged with a nonviolent crime.

We work with trained volunteer arbitrators to meet with the young person who has committed the offense, their parents, the victim, and the arresting officer to unanimously determine the appropriate sanction. The young person is then able to accept responsibility for their actions, remedy the harm to the victim, and prevent the serious stain of a juvenile record. State funding through implementing the raise-the-age law would allow us to build on our successes and serve more of our youth. We are eager to create evidence and data-driven programs as cost-effective alternatives to incarceration for more teens.

S.C. took a huge step forward by passing the raise-the-age law. Let’s take the next step and fund it. Let’s not squander this opportunity to turn young lives around and in the process make our communities safer.

Leon Lott is Richland County sheriff and a member of Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime & Incarceration