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SC Senate Votes No Confidence in Juvenile Justice Chief

South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice Director Freddie Pough testifies in front of state lawmakers in Columbia, S.C., on Thursday, May 20, 2021. Lawmakers are scrutinizing the department after a scathing government audit last month found a failure to maintain adequate security staffing, an uptick in violence and many other deep-rooted problems. (AP Photo/Michelle Liu)
Michelle Liu/AP
South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice Director Freddie Pough testifies in front of state lawmakers in Columbia, S.C., on Thursday, May 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Michelle Liu)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The South Carolina Senate voted Tuesday that they have no confidence in embattled Department of Juvenile Justice Director Freddie Pough.

Pough is unable to fix problems at the agency that operates the state's juvenile prisons, senators decided in a 34-4 vote. The action follows a hearing earlier this year where department employees testified to worsening conditions at the state’s main juvenile prison in Columbia as Pough sat behind the podium where they spoke.

Lawmakers called the hearings after a scathing report released in April by the Legislative Audit Council. The report found a significant increase in violence, problems getting timely medical care and excessive use of isolation as punishment, with some students even missing testing to get high school diplomas because they were locked up by themselves.

The unchecked violence has led to students and correctional staff being hurt on a regular basis, said Sen. Katrina Shealy on Tuesday. She added that last week, two youths were seriously injured and one correctional officer had four of her fingers broken.

“I know this because the boots on the ground tell me so,” said Shealy, a Republican from Lexington and longtime agency volunteer.

Shealy has led a panel of lawmakers who cast a similar no-confidence voteearlier this month. She said several senators have recently met with Gov. Henry McMaster and his staff about Pough, “but it's been to no avail.”

McMaster chose Pough to run the agency and is the only person who can fire him. Pough, who has led the department since 2017, has repeatedly told senators that he won't quit the job.

“The governor’s going to continue doing the hard work of making sure the changes that need to be made at the agency are being made,” said McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes. "Director Pough has already implemented important recruitment and retention policies by providing bonuses to existing employees and signing bonuses for new ones. Improvements still need to be made, and they will be.”

In recent weeks, the agency has also contracted extra security officers at the Columbia prison.

A few senators objected to the vote itself, arguing it was purely symbolic and would do nothing to fix the structural issues plaguing the agency.

What needs to happen, said Sen. Gerald Malloy, a Democrat from Darlington, are juvenile justice reforms that the state failed to implement years ago. The juvenile system currently faces a bottleneck, Malloy added, noting a law that went into effect in 2019 to raise the minimum age that teenagers could be tried as adults. Malloy still voted in favor of the motion.

Of the four senators who didn’t vote against Pough, all were Democrats and African Americans.

Tuesday’s action was the first time a no-confidence vote has been even broached by the full Senate since June 2014, when Department of Social Services Director Lillian Koller quit a day before lawmakers planned a similar vote.

Pough himself had no comment on the Tuesday vote, according to agency spokesman Jarid Munsch: “Director Pough and DJJ are focused on rehabilitating young people and supporting families throughout the state."


Associated Press writer Jeffrey Collins contributed to this report.