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The Next Step in Sensible Juvenile Justice Reform

JJ Scales

We do well by our society when we do well by our youth, especially those who’ve gotten in trouble. Nebraska is heading down the right path when it comes to juvenile justice. Reforms of recent years are beginning to bear fruit in an increased array of close-to-home alternatives, decreased numbers of youth held in jail-like or prison-like facilities, and falling rates of juvenile crime. Policymaker commitment to evidence-based principles and financial investment in services that have been proven to work a leading cause of these positive indicators, and make Nebraska a leader among states in working toward solutions for what has been a broken system and flawed approach.

We still have a ways to go, though, and a set of important next steps are embodied in LB 894 and its Judiciary Committee amendment, AM 1962.  This package is scheduled to be heard before the Legislature sometime in the next few days. Its provisions will continue our course toward ensuring youth exit the justice system better prepared and positioned to become upstanding citizens, rather than pushing them farther down the criminal path, by:

Providing Early Access to Counsel: Kids are constitutionally entitled to lawyers in the juvenile court, but too often they unknowingly waive this right. A competent lawyer can advise a child whether to go to trial or take a plea, whether or not to agree with recommendations made by probation or the County Attorney, and why and how court orders must be followed.

  • This bill would ensure every child is appointed a lawyer early enough to assist them in understanding proceedings and making potentially life-changing decisions about how to proceed in court.
  • It would restrict waiver of counsel in certain serious hearings, and would require that children consult with a lawyer before deciding to waive the right.

Ending Kindergarten Court: Children still learning to read are not competent to understand complex legal proceedings. Many states have set a minimum age for delinquency charging, but Nebraska still permits children of any age to be charged regardless of their developmental capacity.

  • This bill would permit juvenile court jurisdiction through a family-focused court filing to wrap services around the whole family when a child age 10 or younger acts out.

Setting Limits on Lock-Ups: Decades of research has proved time and again that incarcerating children is more likely to perpetuate criminal behavior, damage mental health, and reduce the likelihood of future educational and vocational success. Secure confinement should only be used sparingly, in cases where a child presents a real and immediate danger.

  • This bill would limit the use of secure confinement to cases where a child presents an immediate, serious threat to the community or a significant risk of failure to appear for court proceedings.
  • It would clarify terms in the juvenile code, ensuring that state grant aid to counties is spent on real alternatives to detention that keep kids safely in their homes and communities instead of in locked facilities.

Requiring Reports on Solitary Confinement of Youth: Our state knows too well the dangerous repercussions of extended solitary confinement. This practice is especially traumatic on the developing brain of a child or adolescent, and has no utility in a spectrum of rehabilitative services.

  • This bill would require facilities housing youth under the age of majority to report any extended use of room confinement (a.k.a. segregation, solitary confinement) to the Legislature.

Children are capable of powerful change and growth. LB 894 + AM 1962 builds on previous efforts to ensure our justice system activates that potential. We encourage you to reach out to your senator and share your own support for this sensible approach to juvenile justice!

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