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Published in Print: April 12, 2000, as South Carolina Weighs Curbing Jail Time for Truants

South Carolina Weighs Curbing Jail Time for Truants

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A South Carolina legislator hopes to abolish a 1996 state law that permits judges to jail youths who skip school without having valid excuses.

The bill is aimed in part at ensuring that the state receives its full share of grant money provided by the U.S. Department of Justice to improve juvenile-justice programs, said Sen. C. Bradley Hutto, the Democrat who is sponsoring the legislation. The department is currently withholding 25 percent of the money that the state would otherwise be eligible for, under a policy of penalizing states with policies that allow incarceration of youths considered to be of minimal danger.

If the bill becomes law, the state would use the extra federal dollars it would receive to pay for other efforts to combat truancy, Mr. Hutto said.

"We'd like to have some alternatives available to truants other than incarceration," he said. While some anti-truancy programs do exist in the state, the legislation is designed to provide money to expand such options.

Another by-product of the bill would be to ease overcrowding in the state's juvenile-justice facilities, said Sen. Larry A. Martin, a Republican who sits on the Senate judiciary committee, which unanimously approved the measure last week. The bill is slated to be discussed by the full Senate in the coming weeks, he said.

"We've got to restrict the use of juvenile prisons for only the most serious offenders," Mr. Martin said.

Penalties Would End

By ending the policy, the state would likely be eligible for nearly $1 million under the federal aid program in the next fiscal year, said Rodney L. Albert, the acting director of the state-relations and -assistance division of the Justice Department's juvenile-delinquency office.

The department provided $717,500 in aid to South Carolina in fiscal year 1999, nearly $240,00 less than if the state had been in compliance with the regulation, he said.

Mr. Albert said the department considers it inappropriate to incarcerate "status offenders—juveniles who commit an act that would otherwise not be a crime if committed by adults."

"You're putting them into an atmosphere with other delinquents," a situation that can lead such youths to commit more serious offenses, he pointed out.

The federal regulation has been in place since 1974, Mr. Albert said. Only South Carolina, South Dakota, and Wyoming currently have policies that send truants directly to juvenile jail.

The South Carolina bill would eliminate an existing statute that authorizes judges to incarcerate for a maximum of 90 days youths who skip 10 or more days of school within a particular school year. It would still allow judges to commit truants to juvenile-detention centers for violating court orders to return to school.

In South Carolina, 334 truants were committed to juvenile-detention facilities last year following their first offenses or after having been held in contempt of court for failing to return to school, the state department of juvenile justice reports.

A spokeswoman for the department said the agency supports bringing the state into compliance with the federal law.

It is much more common for judges to jail youths after they have been held in contempt of court for failing to return to school than for first-time truancy offenses, said Bill Byars, the director of the children's law office at the University of South Carolina Law School in Columbia and a retired judge who worked in the family courts for a decade.

Few Go Directly to Jail

State officials said they did not have a breakdown of how many of the jailed truants were first-time offenders.

But Mr. Byars estimated that they represented only about 50 cases in the past year. Those cases usually involved youths whom judges deemed dangerous to themselves or others, he said.

Still, Mr. Byars said, incarceration policies "are treating the symptom, not the cause."

"Maybe [the truant] is embarrassed because he can't read or write," he said. "Maybe his parents just split up. Maybe he's on drugs."

Alternative programs help youths get to the root of problems that are keeping them away from school, he added.

Vol. 19, Issue 31, Page 32

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