Youth offenders usually enter the juvenile justice system in South Carolina when they are taken into custody by law enforcement or when a solicitor or a school refers them to DJJ. At this stage, personnel at one of the 43 DJJ county offices usually interview the juvenile. Law enforcement also may elect to send the juvenile to a juvenile detention center, pending a hearing.
After county office or detention center personnel have interviewed a youth offender, DJJ makes recommendations to the solicitor’s office regarding the case. The solicitor has a number of options available when deciding how to pursue a case. A solicitor may choose to divert youth to a community program, such as Juvenile Arbitration, or require the juvenile to make restitution for the offense. Solicitors also may choose to proceed with prosecution or dismiss a case entirely.
If the solicitor chooses to prosecute, the next stage of the process involves the family court. A family court judge determines the guilt or innocence of the juvenile. Often a judge will request a DJJ evaluation of the juvenile before making a final ruling. This evaluation involves psychological, social and educational assessments that are conducted either in the community or at one of DJJ’s three regional evaluation centers. The comprehensive evaluation helps the judge decide how to proceed in the best interests of the juvenile, victim and community.
If a youth is found delinquent (guilty), the judge has several sentencing options. Chief among these is probation, which maintains the juvenile in the community under DJJ supervision. The judge may also commit the youth to DJJ custody by imposing a determinate (fixed amount of time) or indeterminate sentence. An indeterminate sentence allows the youth to be confined up to the age of 22.
Upon indeterminate commitment, youth offenders will be given a time range or “guideline,” determined by the state Board of Juvenile Parole (for all felonies and select misdemeanors) or DJJ’s own release authority (for most misdemeanors and all status offenses). This range is based on the severity of the juvenile’s offense and his or her history of previous offenses. These guidelines can run anywhere from 1-3 months or up to 36-54 months. The Board of Juvenile Parole and DJJ use these guidelines, along with an evaluation of the juvenile’s behavior and progress, to determine the length of incarceration.
Youth may remain incarcerated beyond their guideline (up to their 22nd birthday). They may also be paroled prior to their minimum guideline for exceptional behavior and progress.
Juveniles may be granted conditional or unconditional release. A conditional release might involve requiring the juvenile to complete a local aftercare program or program at a wilderness camp or group home. A conditional release also involves a period of parole supervision. DJJ county officers supervise youth on parole, much as they supervise those on probation.