When children get in trouble with the law, our system should ensure they are held accountable for their actions in an age-appropriate, fair and just way. No one should face trial and punishment without understanding their rights, the possible consequences, and the reasons why; this is particularly true for young people, who are especially vulnerable to pressure from authority and may not fully understand the long-term ramifications of their choices and actions.
Having a lawyer to provide legal advice and represent a child in court provides a safeguard to ensure justice is served in a manner that protects both the community and the child accused. However, all too often in our state, young people aren’t getting access to counsel. Today we are releasing our latest issue brief, “Juvenile Injustice,” diving into the data and highlighting the need for more equitable access to legal counsel in juvenile cases across Nebraska.
Key takeaways include:
- An urban/rural divide exists, with children in Nebraska’s urban centers much more likely to get counsel than in more rural districts. This trend will likely be exacerbated by amendments made to LB 894 and passed this session, requiring early appointment of counsel in all juvenile court cases — but only in counties with more than 150,000 inhabitants.
- American Indian youth and youth whose racial or ethnic identity is unknown have the lowest rate of youth with access to counsel
- Across the state, girls are less likely to receive legal counsel than boys. Reasons for this disparity are unclear.
Nebraska kids are entitled to a fair process to hold them accountable for their actions, whether they live in Omaha or Ogalalla, and regardless of their race, ethnicity, or gender. We recommend that lawmakers and system stakeholders realign the process for appointment of counsel, so that a lawyer is appointed early in every case, and vigilantly guard against practices which might encourage youth to waive the right without full understanding. Ensuring that youth have an attorney present to provide expert guidance and advocacy can make the difference between justice served or justice denied.