This week, the legislature will consider a package of bills related to juvenile justice, including: LB 265, LB 347, LB 482, and LB 500. Here’s how they would all work together, in conjunction with current law and some other 2015 bills, to further improve Nebraska’s system for handling troubled youth.
1. Screen out the lowest risk cases at the front door of the system:
National research shows that the most effective investment in juvenile justice is to keep the lowest risk cases out of the courtroom where possible and focus taxpayer dollars on higher-risk youth.
Nebraska already has a robust set of juvenile diversion programs, growing in more and more counties. Prior legislation created the Community-Based Juvenile Services Aid program to distribute grants to counties to invest in diversion programs, alternatives to juvenile detention, and community-based resources that will best serve children and families outside of court.
LB 482 takes the next step, pushing non-criminal status offenders, like truants or so-called “ungovernables,” toward available community based services rather than court and detention.
2. Ensure justice in the courtroom:
Children deserve to be treated fairly, thoughtfully, and with careful attention to their individual needs. Several of this year’s bills further the just treatment of kids in the court.
LB 15 would ensure that guardians ad litem adequately and zealously represent youth in the courtroom.
LB 482 would bolster the juvenile court’s rehabilitative mission by ending the practice of indiscriminately shackling youth based on policy and convenience rather than true dangerousness or risk of flight. Indiscriminately shackling children in court is detrimental to adolescent development, humiliating to youth, and at odds with the juvenile court’s rehabilitative purpose.
LB 265 would permit ongoing jurisdiction and rehabilitative services for youth on probation, on a voluntary basis, up to age 21. This provides a safety net for youth who need a little more time to finish their rehabilitative plan.
3. Offer the right package of services to reduce recidivism and enhance outcomes:
All the good intentions in the world are meaningless unless the right services are offered to troubled youth in order to turn their lives around. Nebraska needs to offer a spectrum of behavioral and mental health services to keep troubled children from treading farther down a criminal path.
Youth who come before the court with their own charges (whether delinquency or non-criminal status charges) are overseen by the Office of Juvenile Probation. LB 500 would draw down federal reimbursement for evidence- based, highly effective behavioral health services that are currently getting paid out of the state’s general fund for juvenile probationers.
LB 482 would require a judge to make specific findings that services have been exhausted and a real risk of harm exists before pulling a child out of the home who has committed no crime.
4. Make sure the system is working as it should through neutral oversight and evaluation:
Juvenile justice is costly, especially when it is done wrong. Addressing problematic behaviors quickly, thoughtfully, and in the home as often as possible reduces overall costs and improves public safety. We need to ensure that in all cases, we are spending taxpayer dollars effectively, to maximize our impact for children and communities.
LB 347 would bring in the Office of the Inspector General to provide neutral, outside oversight of probation cases.
LB 265 would bring in the Foster Care Review Office to review probation cases where a child is removed from the home.
LB 265 would also provide for data collection and evaluation of:
– out of home placements, to track how often judges are placing juvenile probationers in group homes and other settings, how long those placements last, and what they are costing Nebraska taxpayers.
-the use of Community Based Aid Fund dollars, to assess whether these grant funds are being spent effectively on programs that reduce recidivism, keep kids out of detention centers, and improve outcomes for Nebraska children.
If you feel strongly, as we do, about these bills and their potential to improve our juvenile justice system, please contact your senator to express your support!