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Emerging Adults: Justice and Public Safety

The 2016 Kids Count in Nebraska Report includes an in-depth look at the first steps young people take along their transition away from childhood – emerging adulthood. This is a time of profound growth and development coupled with frequent life changes. The decisions made during these years impacts the next generation of Nebraska’s workforce and families. Our series investigating our commentary thus far has introduced some of the characteristics of emerging adults and provided an overview of this population in Nebraska, and looked at the healtheducation, economic stability, and interactions with the child welfare system of these young Nebraskans. Today features our final look at the data in this year’s Kids Count Commentary, emerging adults and justice and public safety. Stay tuned next week as we wrap up this series looking at the transition to adulthood as well as make some recommendations on how our state can best support these young people on their path to full adulthood.

Emerging adults who experience, witness, or feel threatened by violence frequently face long-term effects on physical health and mental health and have an increased likelihood of committing an act of violence themselves. Typically, law-breaking increases from late childhood and peaks in the teenage years with a slow decline during emerging adulthood years. This trend does not reach pre-pubescent levels until well after the transition to young adulthood has typically taken place. Youth who began offending at a younger age are more likely to continue offending after their adolescent years, but by age 25, these offense rates dramatically drop off. Many young people who offend at ages 18-20 are likely to naturally stop these behaviors within a few years following the offense.

Last week’s post described Nebraska’s robust system of supportive services available for young people aging out of our foster care system at age 19. Conversely, youth exiting our juvenile justice system can face an abrupt transition from probation oversight, intensive supports and rehabilitative services, and even out-of-home placement to sudden independence. Without a transition plan to ease youth back into their homes and communities, this population is particularly at risk to re-offend and face adult incarceration. Research has shown that less than 20% of formerly incarcerated youth have diplomas or GEDs, and only 30% continue to stay engaged in work or school a year after their release. These risk factors highlight the critical need for enhanced transition services for older youth leaving the juvenile justice system so that they are set up for a successful and a crime-free future, rather than a return to anti-social behaviors.

When the Legislature passed LB 216 in 2013 creating the Bridge to Independence (b2i) program, it required continued examination of ways to extend the program to other populations in need of similar transitional supports. In 2015, the Bridge to Independence Advisory Committee of the Children’s Commission formed a task force to examine this question and make recommendations. Focus groups were held with youth and adult stakeholders across the state, and the task force itself represented a set of state experts in the extended foster care and/or the probation system. The task force found broad consensus supporting a voluntary program of extended services for young people aging out of the juvenile justice system without a stable system of family supports. The primary recommendation was to open up eligibility to the current b2i program to young people aging out of the juvenile justice system who have no home to return to. This recommendation came out of the evidence that, though they may have come to the attention of our court system through a criminal act or misbehavior, there are youth lingering in placement on probation not because they themselves have failed to rehabilitate, but because they lack a home to return to and child welfare proceedings have not been initiated due to their age.

A 2016 interim study sponsored by Senator Kate Bolz of Lincoln, LR 514, provided a forum and opportunity for detailed legal research and further collaborative discussion to take place and a proposal to be developed to extend b2i eligibility to youth aging out of the juvenile justice system. The resulting proposal has essentially two criteria: a young person must be in a court-ordered out-of-home placement as they age out of probation on their 19th birthday, and prior to aging out, the court must hold a hearing and make a finding that such placement is necessary because returning to the home would be “contrary to the welfare” of the child. Stakeholders hope that by providing a system of supports to young people who would otherwise be set adrift after system involvement, Nebraska can ensure their safe transition to a productive and healthy adulthood– benefitting our state as a whole.

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