FOR MORE THAN a decade, the narrative on the Department of Juvenile Justice was the amazing job that former Family Court Judge Bill Byers did transforming the place into a miracle agency from a deeply troubled prison where kids went to be abused and schooled in how to become grown-up criminals.
Within a year of taking over as director, Judge Byers convinced a federal judge to end an eight-year-old court supervision order. By the time he left in 2011, he had slashed the number of juveniles held in a locked facility from more than 400 to 180, as he diverted them to wilderness and other alternative programs that had much higher success rates; the number has since dropped to around 110.
That narrative remained intact when Gov. Nikki Haley tapped first his protege, and then, early last year, her protege to run the agency.
Youth who get sent to lock-up facilities don’t tend to be the type whose parents attract a lot of political attention or public sympathy. Combine that with the good impressions about the agency and the difficulty our legislators have keeping up with what’s going on inside the agencies that they created, empowered and fund, and it’s easy to see how the gathering clouds went unnoticed outside the confines of the prison-like facility on Broad River Road.
WIS had a brief report on a riot in August, but the word “riot” wasn’t used; a dorm was “vandalized” during an “altercation.” In December, The State had a similarly brief report on “three minor fires” at the facility. Even the riot last month that finally brought the matter to a head wasn’t portrayed as a big deal: WIS reported that “some kids being held at the Broad River Road Complex in Columbia got out of control Friday” and damaged some property.
I doubt the agency could have kept its problems quiet forever. But if past is prologue, the secret would have come out when there was a crisis — perhaps when a riot ended in dead children on the inside, or an escape ended in a deadly rampage on the outside. Legislators would have been outraged and demanded that heads roll. They would have rewritten laws to make sure such things never happened again.
That, after all, is how we have always handled problems at state agencies: after they turned into crises.
This time we have the opportunity to deal with the problem while it’s a tinderbox instead of a conflagration — when there have been only three riots, no loss of life, no escape for more than a few hours, no outside-the-walls violence.
We have this opportunity because of what is, to be sure, a quirk of timing. But that quirk involves a smart new law that was designed for the very purpose of helping legislators spot potential problems in state agencies before they turn into full-blown crises.
That law, passed in conjunction with the 2014 measure that turned control of most central administrative functions of government over to the governor, requires the House and Senate to audit state agencies on a seven-year rotating basis.
In a serendipitous decision, the House Oversight Committee voted in May to include the Department of Juvenile Justice among its first audits. “I don’t think anybody could have predicted 10 months ago when we started down this trail that there would be riots at DJJ,” said Rep. Kirkman Finlay, who chairs the Juvenile Justice review panel.
Indeed, Mr. Finlay’s focus was financial — why did the agency need as many inflation-adjusted dollars with 110 kids behind the barbed wire as it did when there were 400? — right up through the hearing his panel held the day before the Feb. 26 riot. The one where sinks were torn from walls and thrown through glass windows, a male inmate broke into the female dorm and others made it to the parking lot, where they destroyed police cars and other property.
Even though the Oversight Committee had urged state employees to contact it about problems at the agency, Mr. Finlay told me that it was only after the riot that he was inundated with calls from Juvenile Justice employees.
“The story has been the same: favoritism, they’re afraid of retaliation, they don’t feel safe, the guards feel threatened, and management doesn’t seem to be in touch,” he said.
At a hearing earlier this month where Director Sylvia Murray testified that the agency hasn’t had a gang intervention specialist in a year, the police chief’s job has been open for almost three years and the rapid-response team has been disbanded, a guard told the panel that gangs have taken over and the unarmed guards can’t put prisoners in lockdown without permission of a supervisor, even if there isn’t one on the campus.
Mr. Finlay made the point of directing his staff to check on the guard periodically, to make sure she doesn’t suffer any retaliation. It was a crucial directive, because the only way the Legislature will get the cooperation it needs to understand what is going on inside of troubled agencies is by making sure employees won’t be punished for talking. And without cooperation from state employees and attention from state legislators, we’ll never stop hurtling from crisis to crisis.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at email@example.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.