We are commemorating our 25th Anniversary with 25 posts about our history and accomplishments between now and the Spotlight Gala on September 15. Join us for a celebration of Voices for Children and all of the organizations, lawmakers, and individuals who have supported our work on behalf of children. For details, visit voicesforchildren.com/spotlight-gala.
This is a guest post from summer intern,William Lynch. William is a senior political science & theology double major at Creighton. He is a summer intern at Voices for Children in Nebraska, focused on juvenile justice policy.
Over the course of the last 25 years, Voices for Children has worked to improve the juvenile justice system in Nebraska. The “system” includes a range of actions and outcomes when a juvenile commits an offense.
There is an important distinction to make between the juvenile justice system and the adult justice system. Often in the adult justice system the end goal is punishment. The thinking is that adults should know that they should not steal or hurt others. If they commit a crime, they will be punished for it. In contrast, the end goal of the juvenile justice system is rehabilitation. Juveniles still have developing brains and have difficulty understanding the consequences of their actions outside of the moment. The juvenile justice system exists to address their behavior now, with as little state intrusion into their life as possible, so that they can grow up and make good decisions.
The system here in Nebraska and in other states has never been perfect, despite its best intentions. Efforts have long been made to improve and reform the system. In 1974, the federal government passed the Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA). This act provided states with money to improve their juvenile justice systems in four core ways:
- Deinstitutionalize status offenders – Juveniles who commit crimes that are only crimes because of their age, like breaking curfew or failing to attend school, should be held in secure settings.
- Juvenile-specific facilities – Juveniles should not be housed with adult offenders because the needs of each group are too different to be served in the same facility.
- Separate juveniles from adult inmates by “sight and sound” – In the event that juveniles are jailed, and a juvenile-specific facility isn’t available, they must be completely separate from adult inmates.
- Reduce Disproportionate Minority Contact – Studies have repeatedly shown that youth of color are disproportionately represented across the juvenile justice system. Race is a major factor in whether or not a youth enters the system. The growing body of research suggests that the system makes race matter. States must address this at all levels of the system.
Before the passage of the JJDPA it was, and in some states still is, routine to detain juveniles for status offenses. Juveniles who committed these offenses were usually put in adult jails. Often these facilities offered little in the way of rehabilitation. With little access to educational or counseling services, the juvenile justice system resembled the punishment focus of the adult system. In these adult prisons, youth are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than in juvenile detention facilities. The JJDPA and its related funding allowed states to address these issues, particularly with funding for local delinquency prevention programs.
In 1989, Voices for Children began a critical examination the juvenile justice system here in Nebraska. We found that Nebraska’s system was disjointed and not geared toward helping children. Compliance with the JJDPA, along with access to federal money to improve the Nebraska juvenile justice system, became a primary goal to work towards reform.
The push for compliance began immediately but remains a work in progress. By the late 1990s, Nebraska had not come into full compliance with the JJDPA and the federal funds dried up. In 2000, Voices for Children, along with the Nebraska Crime Commission and State Senator Nancy Thompson, wrote and passed LB 1164 in an effort to get Nebraska in compliance with the JJDPA. This bill merged juvenile service committees into one and gave power to the counties to develop local data monitoring boards. In effect, it mandated compliance and a more efficient distribution of federal funds once they were regained.
Since then Voices for Children has worked on and argued for numerous bills to improve Nebraska’s juvenile justice system. For example, part of LB 800, which passed in 2010, and prohibits status offenders from being held in secure detention effective January 1, 2013. It’s successes like these that show our efforts are working; things are getting better, albeit slowly.
Overall, Nebraska still has a long road ahead on juvenile justice issues. With minority contact issues and over-incarceration of juveniles, Nebraska isn’t yet the beacon of juvenile justice it should be. However, Voices for Children in Nebraska is committed to working hard until it is.