An exploratory view of the juvenile arbitration program of Aiken County, South Carolina.

Author:Hazen, Nina


As American society grows more legalistic in nature and appeals to the court system for satisfactory remedies rise, the need for programs in the criminal justice system that are readily available to handle the influx of juvenile referrals becomes vital. In recent years, crimes once considered trivial in nature that schools and parents could easily handle informally have been increasingly turned over to law enforcement officials and the criminal justice system for prosecution. Due in part to devastating school events, such as the deadly Columbine Shooting, educational institutions have developed various forms of zero-tolerance policies that put an increasing number of juveniles into the legal system rather than imposing upon them in-school punishments. Crimes, such as simple assault, normally managed by school officials, are increasingly being handled in the juvenile justice system.

The influx of new punishable crimes in the juvenile justice system has yielded multiple effects. In one respect, juvenile referrals overwhelm the personnel and financial resources of the legal system. Solicitors prosecuting cases involving juvenile offenders are hard-pressed for time to develop effective arguments to prosecute these offenders before the court, while the Department of Juvenile Justice strains to provide adequate supervision for youth placed under court-ordered probation. In addition to workforce burden concerns, research shows that when youth are exposed to the criminal justice system there is a strong probability that they will experience physical harm during their incarceration and become involved in future criminal activity that will result in additional legal entanglements. (1)

Offering diversion programs, such as the Juvenile Arbitration Program (JAP), alleviates the financial and personnel strains on a congested justice system. Solicitors prosecuting cases against juvenile offenders represent thousands ofjuvniles annually, yet only 27% of public defender offices throughout the United States employ an ample number of attorneys to meet client needs. (2) Additionally, 87% of public defender offices lack the financial resources to retain full-time investigators to assist attorneys in interviewing witnesses, gathering relevant information in cases involving juvenile offenders, and providing general support to the defense (e.g., locating addresses and other contact information for witnesses and being available to public defenders to assist them as needed). As a result, attorneys often lack the necessary resources to prepare an effective argument on behalf of their juvenile clients. (3)

Each juvenile routed to JAP makes for one less client that a public defender represents in court. Allowing volunteer arbitrators to assume the roles of judge, probation officer, public defender, and solicitor in certain cases alleviates the costly personnel burden of sanctioning and supervising juvenile offenders. Arbitrators, assisted by JAP administrative staff, meet with juvenile offenders, their families, and crime victims to investigate and mediate an offense in hopes of easing the aforementioned financial and personnel burdens to the criminal justice system resulting from the rise in juvenile crime.

According to statistics compiled by the South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice (SCDJJ), 4,368 juveniles were actively on probation or parole throughout the state in 2010; another 1,178 were housed in secure placement facilities (i.e., group homes, wilderness camps, mental health centers or incarceration). (4) The daily cost of supervising juveniles on probation throughout South Carolina averages $3.29. The cost of secure supervision (incarceration) runs about $300 daily. By contrast, the daily cost of JAP in South Carolina averages $1.95. (5)

By comparison, the State of Georgia supervised 13,831 juveniles on probation in 2009, and housed 6,449 in secure placement facilities. (6) Routing appropriate first- time offenders to a diversion program may reduce the scores of juveniles requiring traditional probation supervision. Diversion, for the purpose of this study, is defined as treating first-time offenders through programs outside the SCDJJ, that if successfully completed, will hold no permanent criminal record for the juvenile. Appropriate refers to first-time juvenile offenders arrested for simple offenses (e.g., petite larceny and shoplifting) and deemed acceptable by the solicitor to undergo arbitration after consulting with the victim and gaining his/her approval to pursue that course of action. In addition to reducing the influx of juveniles processed by SCDJJ, successful JAP graduates may be imbued with a sense of potential punishments should they re-enter the criminal justice system on another offense, and also learn accountability for their actions. (7) In other words, JAP provides an opportunity for young offenders to understand the ramifications of their offense without becoming part of the formal legal system.

JAP evolved from the principals of restorative justice, a response to criminal activity that encourages participation from various community partners, including family members of the juvenile offenders, the crime victim, and law enforcement officials in an attempt to handle juvenile crime holistically. The idea espouses that justice can be accomplished by establishing relationships between the victim, the juvenile offender, and the community as a whole. JAP embraces restorative justice by having citizen volunteers' act as arbitrators, offering community service as a cornerstone sanction in hearings, and reaching out to victims to ensure their participation in the process. (8)

While those in the field of criminal justice tout JAP benefits, little research has been done to investigate program operations and to determine its success rate in meeting the goals of restorative justice. This study examines JAP's success rate in Aiken County, South Carolina, by seeking to learn: (1) whether or not the program is effective in reducing the financial burden of prosecuting first-time juvenile offenders to the criminal justice system; (2) the rate of successful completion of the program; and, (3) victim accountability through financial and community service restitution. It is hoped that the findings of this study might help the Solicitor's Office appreciate the program's performance.

Ginny Barr, Balanced and Restorative Justice (BAR J) Coordinator with SCDJJ, laments the lack of a thorough evaluation mechanism which leaves scores of questions regarding JAP's effectiveness unanswered. (9) The limited available research on JAP has generally been conducted by the SCDJJ and the Office of Juvenile Delinquency Prevention, focusing on cost-benefit analysis. (10) Youth advocates in the juvenile justice field readily tout JAP's cost effectiveness compared to traditional probation; however, extant studies often fail to decisively discern cost-savings benefits. (11) Such shortcomings in existing research make program evaluations of JAP vital for any understanding of the benefits and drawbacks of diversion programs.


The juvenile justice system began in 1899 when the state legislature of Illinois enacted the Juvenile Court Act, which included the notion of private hearings for juvenile offenders with confidential records. (12) A year later, South Carolina built the first juvenile correctional facility in the United States and allowed each county to establish its own independent juvenile court and operational procedures. Individual policies remained in place until the Supreme Court ruling in United States v. Re Gault (1967), which provided constitutional rights to juveniles held in the legal system. In response, the state legislature enacted the South Carolina Judicial Reform Act, which unified county courts into a single state-wide system with consistent procedures to deal with cases involving juvenile offenders. (13)

The Youth Services Act of South Carolina, enacted in 1981, established the Department of Youth Services, which marked the beginning of today's South Carolina juvenile justice system. In 1993, the Department of Youth Services morphed into the SCDJJ and led the way in promoting the practice of restorative justice. Within a decade, observers in the field of criminal justice found the courts easing away from harsh penalties and moving toward a more balanced and restorative approach of justice in the juvenile justice system. This balanced approach to restorative justice promotes community safety, juvenile accountability, and incorporates specialized treatment for individual cases. (14) JAP's purpose is rooted in restorative justice as the program encourages compensation for hardships arising from the harm inflicted by youthful offenders in a cooperative manner involving the various stakeholders to the offense that bridges the gap between community and legal intervention.

JAP began in Florida in 1978 as an alternative for first-time offenders to the traditional juvenile court system. (15) A collaboration of juvenile justice professionals established South Carolina's first JAR in 1993, in Lexington County. The success rate of juveniles who entered the program during its first year of operation reached 94%, which proved quite encouraging to legal professionals around the state. Shortly thereafter, Solicitor Bob Harte campaigned for the establishment of a JAP in Aiken County. The program was launched in June 1985 with the aid of a three-year grant from the governor's office. Today, the program operates under the direction of the solicitor's office funded through grants from SCDJJ. (16)

JAP targets first-time juvenile offenders charged with non-life-threatening offenses to participate in this sanctioned non-traditional legal remedy, thus diverting them from the formal legal system. (17) The formal legal system entails solicitor prosecution in Family Court and the juvenile charged with...

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