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Legislature sets the stage for juvenile justice reform

A great deal of public attention has been focused on Nebraska’s child welfare system’s flaws over the past few years. Our juvenile justice system, which actually serves just as many vulnerable children and families, has received comparatively little. Yet data show that youth in our juvenile justice system are often placed in unnecessarily restrictive environments and don’t get the services they need to succeed and grow into healthy, productive adults. Just one example is the rising number of assaults at our state institutions for juveniles, our Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers (YRTCs). The end result is that a system that is supposed to rehabilitate youth often ends up punishing them and denying them the opportunity to succeed instead.

 

Nebraska’s Juvenile Justice System by the Numbers , 2010
Juvenile Arrests Juveniles served by Probation OJS wards Juveniles Detained Juveniles sent to YRTCs Juveniles Tried in Adult Court
14,030 5,152 over 1,500 2,949 592 4,469

 

Despite the lack of public attention, Senators and juvenile justice stakeholders have been quietly laying the groundwork for important and comprehensive juvenile justice reform in the coming months and years. Most importantly, LB 985 appropriates nearly $9 million to Probation to provide community-based juvenile justice services in Omaha, North Platte and Scottsbluff (the 11th & 12th Judicial Districts). The bill also provides for an evaluation of the effectiveness of this project. This will allow more youth to be effectively served in their homes and communities. Additionally, the Legislature rejected moving the YRTCs to the Department of Correctional Services. Instead, LB 972 now restricts YRTC admissions to youth ages 14-18 (it’s currently 12-18), requires reporting of assaults, and greater security measures to be put in place at these facilities. Funding in this year’s budget adjustments went to ensure that YRTCs had more staff. Finally, an interim study, LR 535, takes a look at the YRTCs and their place in the entire juvenile justice continuum of care.

There are no magic bullets to fix our juvenile justice system, and the studied, cautious, determined approach of legislators to tackling these issues is admirable. The stage has been set for more work over the interim period and further down the road to ensure all children, even those who come into conflict with the law, have the opportunity to succeed.

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