LINCOLN — Nebraska Chief Justice Michael Heavican warned lawmakers Thursday that thousands of new truancy cases could overwhelm the Douglas County Juvenile Court system in coming years.
He said the court managed a steep increase in truancy filings last year without additional resources.
But it cannot handle a continued flood of cases this year and into the future, he said in his annual State of the Judiciary address.
“Courts should be used as a last resort for only the most difficult and unresponsive truants,” Heavican said.
Truancy has become a high profile concern in recent years as education and community leaders strive to improve academic achievement.
Newly released figures show that about 22,000 of the state's public school students, or 8 percent, missed more than 20 days of school last year.
Gov. Dave Heineman has named truancy as one of his priorities this year, and he is pushing a bill to redirect learning community funds toward truancy-intervention programs.
Heavican said school-intervention programs and innovative-diversion programs offer better ways to deal with truancy than going through the expensive, less-flexible court system.
He went on to cite growth in truancy cases during remarks highlighting budget issues facing the state's court system.
State lawmakers will be making decisions over the next five months on how to close a $986 million budget gap. Reductions have been proposed in all areas of state spending.
Heavican reminded lawmakers that the judicial system plays a key role as one of the three branches of government.
“The courts are not just another agency line-item in the state's budget,” the chief justice said.
He detailed efforts to make the courts more efficient through the use of electronic document filing and remote video hookups for interpreters.
But he also said “difficult decisions” will have to be made about how the courts operate in the future. Those decisions could include merging some courts.
Heavican noted court accomplishments in the past year directed at serving the elderly and the young.
A task force convened by the court recommended ways to improve the state's guardianship and conservator system in the wake of reports about abuses.
A project looking at the handling of child abuse and neglect cases contributed to a reduction in the amount of time state wards spend in foster care.