Our future prosperity and success as a state depend upon the investments we make today in our children and youth. For a long time, the future of our youth and our state has been jeopardized by our failure to make smart investments and important reforms to our juvenile justice system.
When a young person in our community gets in trouble with the law, we need to respond in a way that gives them their best chance at success while still maintaining community safety.
Too often in Nebraska, our juvenile justice system does exactly the opposite. We incarcerate young people at the 3rd highest rate in the entire nation. Most of these young people pose no threat to community safety, but their stay in detention or at a Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center (YRTC) puts them at risk of dropping out of school, experiencing mental and behavioral health challenges, and interacting with the criminal justice system in the future.
Luckily, the reforms currently being debated by the Legislature strengthen and expand what is already working in Nebraska and implement best practices from across the country. Here’s how to make progress for our children and families in the juvenile justice system:
- Keep more children and youth out of the juvenile justice system. Many youth who come into conflict with the law are better held accountable for their actions outside of the formal court system. Diversion programs help young people pay restitution and connect youth and families to needed services quickly.
- Serve youth in their communities and families. For too long Nebraska has not given local communities the resources they need to support youth and families. Nebraska spent nearly $20 million on the 565 youth sent to the YRTCs from July 2011-June 2012, while all of our 93 counties combined received only $1.5 million combined. Studies show that children and youth served close to home are more successful in their treatment and less likely to end up back in the system. If we invest in the right community-based services, we’ll do a better job of meeting the unique needs of our kids, families, and communities.
- Put limits on placing youth in correctional facilities. Most youth who spend time in our detention centers and YRTCs do not pose a threat to public safety. These youth – incarcerated for crimes like shoplifting, criminal mischief, and disturbing the peace – are better served in their homes and communities. Given the enormous risks of placing children and youth in these facilities, Nebraska needs to ensure that their use is reserved for only the small percentage of youth who need secure care.
- Support youth when they return home. When youth are released from out-of-home placements – especially correctional institutions – they often struggle with reentering their family and communities. 27 percent of young men released from YRTC-Kearney violate parole or return to the facility within 12 months of their release. Creating a process for reentry will help make this transition more successful and keep youth on a successful path forward.
By taking similar steps, other states have seen tremendous success in improving outcomes for children and youth, maintaining community safety, and realizing long-term savings. It’s time Nebraska does the same. Currently, the Legislature is considering LB 561. This bill that would go a long ways toward transforming Nebraska’s juvenile justice system into one that puts the needs of youth first.
Improving our juvenile justice system will require an up-front investment, but it will pay off many times over in the reduction of expensive, institutional care, safer communities, and brighter futures for our children and youth.
Voices for Children applauds lawmakers for taking the first steps toward changing our juvenile justice system for the better. We know that the Legislature will have to make some difficult decisions in its budget debate, but our juvenile justice system –and the youth it serves– must not continue to be short-changed.