This week, Governor Ricketts signed into law a package of legislation aimed at improving our statewide system of response to children and youth who commit crimes. LB 894 is a set of positive reforms that will ensure children’s needs are met and rights protected in age-appropriate and evidence-based ways, and its enactment is a big win for Nebraska youth.
The package combines several bills brought by Senators Patty Pansing Brooks, District 28 (Lincoln), Bob Krist, District 10 (Omaha), and Sara Howard, District 9 (Omaha). In its final form as signed into law, LB 894 does the following:
- Raises the minimum age for delinquency charging to 11, effective in 2017. Juvenile courts can take jurisdiction over children age 10 and younger through a family-focused approach that involves rehabilitative services through the Department of Health and Human Services rather than Juvenile Probation.
- Requires all facilities housing minors to report any use of extended solitary confinement to the Legislature. Solitary, or “room confinement,” is defined as time spent involuntarily segregated from peers during waking hours. Facilities must seek supervisor approval and issue reports when room confinement lasts longer than two hours.
- Enables counties to create public offices of the Guardian Ad Litem, from which judges would appoint counsel to represent the best interests of children in child welfare or juvenile justice cases.
- Keeps Nebraska in compliance with federal law by clarifying terms to ensure youth who haven’t committed crimes aren’t confined in locked facilities.
- Protects the constitutional right to legal counsel for youth in the juvenile court by setting restrictions on when children can waive the right, and requiring that courts in Nebraska’s largest jurisdictions appoint lawyers for kids immediately upon the filing of charges.
While an enacted LB 894 will do much good for youth involved in the juvenile justice system, it contains a concerning compromise amendment that split the provisions regarding protections of legal counsel between urban and rural districts.
The Supreme Court made clear nearly fifty years ago that kids have a constitutional right to a lawyer when faced with juvenile charges. Kids in rural parts of our state deserve due process and the protection of the Constitution just as much as those in urban districts. However, the data show that there is a dramatic difference in the rate at which children are getting access to this protection across the state, with urban kids as much as 2.7 times more likely to have a lawyer in juvenile proceedings.
Overall, LB 894’s protections are a great step for all of Nebraska’s kids, but this amendment is not going to apply to the kids who may need its protection the most.