One of the best practices for building an effective juvenile justice system is to screen out the lowest-risk offenders and focus the bulk of our money and capacity on higher-risk youth. Because the vast majority of low-risk juvenile offenders will grow out of their bad behavior — with or without court intervention — steps should be taken to minimize policies and procedures that paradoxically do the opposite, pushing them farther down the criminal track. This is especially true for so-called “status offenders”: those youth who have committed no crime, but engaged in concerning behaviors like being truant from school, running from home, or constantly fighting with parents or guardians.
Voices has blogged before about status offenders here, and you can read our arguments about the importance of deinstitutionalizing this population in our written testimony for LB 482. Today, we’d like to share with you a detailed data snapshot we recently compiled on the topic, and the way Nebraska treats non-criminal youthful misbehavior. The data shows that while arrest rates for status offenses have been falling, court filings have risen and our rate of out-of-home placement is well above the national average.
While children who are engaging in these types of behaviors may need some kind of help and oversight to get back on track, court involvement and removal from the home should be used as an absolute last resort. All too frequently, we have been using a sledgehammer to fix a cracked windshield.
However, at Voices for Children, we are hopeful that Nebraska may be turning the corner. Efforts already undertaken, like the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative and the Community-Based Juvenile Services Aid Fund, should begin to show results. Additionally, the Coalition for Juvenile Justice recently released a national survey of state responses to status offenders, which only heightens our enthusiasm about LB 482; if this bill passes final reading and is signed into law, it will bring Nebraska significantly more in line with identified best practices for handling these youth. Increasing our pre-court, community-based efforts and utilizing the court process and removal from the home only as an absolute last resort will be good for juveniles, good for families, and very good for taxpayers.