Last December, a legislative hearing in Lincoln shed light on the strains and shortcomings afflicting Nebraska’s juvenile justice system.
Much of the focus was on the state’s juvenile center at Kearney. The vast majority of juveniles there are treatable, lawmakers were told, but security problems at the facility short-circuit the ability to help many of those youths. Nonviolent youths are housed in a huge common area with violent juveniles, and the assault rate per staff person at the center exceeded that in the state correctional system.
It costs around $260 a day to house a young person at the Kearney center, compared with a cost of around $65 for treatment at a group home.
Across lines of party and philosophy, witnesses offered the same, strong message: Nebraska needs to offer local treatment and support services for nonviolent juveniles at the “front end” and reserve state youth facilities for violent juveniles only. Other states have made major progress with such an approach. Nebraska can, too.
Lawmakers, who had already been working on this issue, responded with impressive energy and determination, developing a practical plan to implement that reform. This week, the effort resulted in the Legislature’s 35-0 second-round approval of a well-constructed reform package.
Under Legislative Bill 561, lawmakers would provide $14.5 million in new money over two years for shifting toward locally based services for most juvenile offenders. This switch would offer youths a better chance for rehabilitation and help keep more families involved. It would promote a better use of state dollars by reducing reliance on detention.
Plus, the changes are part of a common, coordinated effort with the state’s reform of the child welfare system, meaning Nebraska would be better able to respond quickly to meet the needs of individual juveniles.
The key player in the juvenile justice reform will be the Nebraska Supreme Court’s Office of Probation Administration, which will get funding shifted from the state Department of Health and Human Services to carry out this new mission. The probation agency will take the lead in assigning probation officers to juveniles and coordinating with local nonprofits and state behavioral health offices to provide services.
That effort will build on a successful detention alternative program in Douglas County, which has been copied on a pilot basis in North Platte and Scottsbluff/Gering.
Lawmakers did their homework. They studied effective approaches being used in other states and in Douglas County. State Sen. Brad Ashford, who spearheaded the reform effort, visited other states to learn what they are doing. Other lawmakers, including Sens. Kathy Campbell, Bob Krist and Amanda McGill, contributed significantly to the effort.
Lawmakers made sure that processes will be put in place to evaluate these changes, and they worked hard to see that costs of reform would fit into the overall state budget. They took care to ensure that funds would be directed upfront toward making a successful transition to the new system.
County government officials across the state have rightly underlined that these reforms will succeed only if adequate funding is provided for the local services and supports. Otherwise, this reform will run into the same problems that afflicted Nebraska’s mishandled switch to privatizing child welfare services.
The juvenile services effort will require much work and monitoring, but with this legislation, Nebraska can take a big step forward. Our leaders should all work together to ensure the success of this much-needed, visionary reform.