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Kids for Cash has lessons for Nebraska

It’s not every day that the juvenile justice system makes national news. But just a few years ago, a scandal rocked Luzerne County Pennsylvania: judges had accepted nearly $2.6 million from private, for-profit juvenile facilities. Now known as the “Kids for Cash” scandal, this incident created shockwaves across the entire country.

This spring, a new film, Kids for Cash, will be released nationwide. The film takes an in-depth look at the scandal — from the actions of the judges involved, to (more importantly) what happens to children and families when a juvenile justice system has gone awry.

Nebraska is lucky; we are not Luzerne County. We have a lot of positive momentum to make our juvenile justice system better. That being said, we can still learn from what happened there:

  1. Youth in Luzerne County routinely lacked legal representation. Interestingly, a 2009 study of Nebraska’s own juvenile defense system identified a similar challenge. In Luzerne County, this lack of representation made it easier for the judge to place children outside of their homes and communities.
  2. The juvenile justice system can be traumatic for youth and families.  The juvenile justice system has always been intended to protect public safety by holding youth accountable in positive ways that put them on a better path. Unfortunately, it often does unintentional harm to youth and families. A journalist from Luzerne County recently reflected on the Kids for Cash film and the personal toll that a poorly functioning system can take on kids and families. Nebraska still has work to do to make sure our juvenile justice system better tailored to help youth and families.
  3. Involvement in the juvenile justice system doesn’t always help kids. Many of the youth who were caught up in the juvenile justice system in Luzerne County were low-risk and first-time offenders. Over-involvement in the system in these cases can often do more damage to children, exposing them to negative behaviors and interrupting their normal adolescent development. Nebraska can do more to keep kids out of the juvenile justice system.

Kids for Cash is a good opportunity to reflect both on how great it is that Nebraska hasn’t experienced this and the work we still need to do to make sure that we never will.

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