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25 for 25: Treating Kids like Kids in the Justice System

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.


When a child is in trouble with the law, they end up in a foreign world. Thrown into a frightening system, they spend time away from home and all that is familiar to them, in courtrooms, police stations and perhaps even jails. The world they end up in is very adult and oftentimes unfeeling. The juvenile justice system should exist to meet their particular needs as children who did something wrong, not as small adults who committed a crime. The goal is to positively change their behavior so that they understand what they did will get them in even more trouble in the future.

Back in the 1990s, Nebraska’s juvenile corrections system was bulky, inefficient, and treated kids like small adults. One of the greatest differences between adults and children is that adolescents’ brains are still developing. These are kids who were in a classroom just yesterday. Kids take different approaches to rehabilitation than adults because they are still turning into adults. At Voices for Children, we knew that one of the best ways to ensure young people develop into adults who contribute positively to society is to keep them in a familiar, home environment, rather than a correctional facility, focused on containment and punishment.

We saw that the juvenile justice system needed to change. No one was focusing on the unique needs of children on our justice system. Even the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers at Kearney and Geneva (YRTCs) were an afterthought, dispassionately run by the Department of (Adult) Correctional Services. That’s why we partnered with Senator David Bernard-Stevens to write LB 447 in 1992, creating the Office of Juvenile Services (OJS) and calling for a new, specialized department within the Department of Correctional Services with its own budget charged with overseeing the YRTCs and working on a comprehensive plan to provide appropriate services for adolescents. A crucial part of successful juvenile rehabilitation is continuing education. The YRTCs expanded their educational offerings and created a more juvenile focused system.

Since then, OJS seems to have lost visibility after undergoing a structural reorganization and being merged with the Department of Health and Human Services. We need to work hard to make sure the momentum of their positive changes isn’t lost. Nebraska needs a juvenile justice system focused on the youth who get in trouble with the law. Maintaining the Office of Juvenile Services, with a focus on rehabilitation and education, is a step in that direction.

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