LINCOLN — An Omaha lawmaker wielded his fist Wednesday to drive home a message that it’s time to reduce youth violence in Nebraska.
During an interim study hearing by the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, State Sen. Brad Ashford emphatically challenged state officials to deliver better services to at-risk youths before they commit crimes.
“We see this violence every day in Omaha. This has got to stop,” Ashford roared, pounding his fist on the table with each word.
The consensus among many who testified before the committee was that Nebraska needs to spend less on housing juvenile offenders in detention centers and more on community services.
The services run the gamut from school tutoring to full-scale mental health treatment. But on average, they cost much less than putting an offender at the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers in Geneva and Kearney.
For example, housing a juvenile at the Kearney center costs nearly $260 per day. The cost at a group home, meanwhile, runs about $65, said Jeanette Moll, who co-authored a policy study about Nebraska’s juvenile justice system released Wednesday by the Platte Institute, a conservative economic think tank.
Moll advocated using the centers for violent offenders, who currently represent just under one-third of the populations in Kearney and Geneva. The money saved could then be invested in the state’s County Juvenile Services Program to provide community-based services to at-risk youths.
Such reforms in Texas have allowed the state to cut $117 million from its juvenile justice budget and close three detention centers. Texas lawmakers, in turn, returned $45 million of the savings to the counties to provide community services.
Studies of a similar program in Ohio showed reoffense rates were cut by half for those juveniles treated in community settings versus confinement, the study reported.
One problem in much of Nebraska is a lack of community services providers. Rural areas, in particular, lack such private providers that could offer contract care for the counties.
Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop said he does not want to see the state dump juvenile offenders out of Kearney and Geneva without providing adequate funding for the counties and private providers. In other words, the state needs to treat providers like partners, he said.
“We still haven’t made the investment in community care that we promised when we closed the regional centers,” Lathrop said, referring to the state-run institutions devoted to treating people with mental illnesses.
Thomas Pristow, children and family services director for the Department of Health and Human Services, said he and his staff members are working to shift how the department spends money on juvenile treatment. While the efforts won’t involve getting more federal Medicaid funds, they will provide greater flexibility so more can be spent on early intervention for troubled youths.
Pristow described the effort as a “culture change” that involves building new, stronger relationships between the state and private providers. When asked how it was coming, he said, “I think that we are not better off yet.” But he added, “I’ll get the job done.”
One key element of forthcoming legislation will be to establish clear benchmarks that must be met by programs that use community services to address nonviolent youth offenders, said Ashford, who also is the committee chairman.
As for how to help fund reforms, Ashford said he’s pondering the possibility of earmarking a portion of the inheritance tax for juvenile programs. Such a proposal could set up a showdown with Gov. Dave Heineman, who wants to eliminate the tax.
Individual counties collect the inheritance tax and use the revenue for government operations. An effort to end the tax last session failed.
In a related matter Wednesday, the committee was presented with a results of a two-year study on youth violence by the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Public Health. Highlights of the study:
» Twenty-five percent of the people between the ages of 10 and 25 seen at UNMC were treated for violence-related injuries.
» Half of the injuries involved gunshots.
» A majority of victims were male.
» Fifty-five percent were African-American.
The study also analyzed the notes on 97 at-risk youths between 10 and 22 taken by street outreach specialists with Impact One Community Connection, an Omaha anti-violence group. The researchers hoped to identify risk factors and “protective factors,” which are positive influences that help steer children away from violence.
The most common risk factors included conflicts at school and home, unstable living arrangements and drug use. Yet such youths lacked protective factors such as participation in after-school activities or having strong relationships with caring adults.
Breaking the cycle of violence must involve combating the risks such children face at an early age, said Melissa Tibbits, one of the report’s authors.
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