Success rates in rehabilitating adult criminals are pretty dismal. The best chance at turning around criminal behavior is to get to them when they're young -- while their minds are still malleable and before they've had time to develop into hardened criminals.
This is why, despite severe economic and budget hardships, South Carolina should not be slashing tens of millions out of a juvenile justice budget that will force young criminals out of counseling programs and group homes into juvenile prisons.
There must be better places to make cuts than to curtail a program that has been enjoying impressive success in turning troubled young people away from a life of crime, and toward a better, constructive life. What's more important than that?
Putting kids in a prison system is virtually a nonstarter as far as rehabilitation goes.
"If you raise a child in prison," says Palmetto State Juvenile Justice Director Bill Byars, "you're going to raise a convict."
Byars should know, because he's credited with turning around a system once better known for warehousing children than counseling and teaching them life skills.
Yet he's now being asked by state budget-cutters to slash an additional 15 percent from a juvenile justice budget that since June has suffered $23 million in cuts.
Due to drastic reductions in tax revenues, the state must pare $1 billion from its original $7 billion budget.
To be sure, that's a lot of cutting. But such cuts should not be leveled willy-nilly, across all agencies and programs. That simply avoids making tough choices. A good budget-cutting program would evaluate, prioritize and force some hard decisions.
Some programs and agencies will deserve major cuts -- or perhaps be eliminated altogether. Others -- especially those that are working and benefiting people -- should be left alone, or even have their budgets increased.
Byars' juvenile justice would seem to fall in the latter category.
After all, what could be more important work than turning young, would-be criminals into honest, gainful adults?