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LINCOLN — An Omaha lawmaker is proposing the creation of a new juvenile justice agency, saying the state's current system of handling troubled youths is broken and failing to stem street violence.
State Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha said the Office of Juvenile Assistance would merge efforts of several state, county and court agencies and offices, and focus more keenly on diagnosis and rehabilitation instead of punishment and incarceration.
Several agencies and court offices now deal with troubled and mentally ill youths, including the State Departments of Health and Human Services and Corrections, the Offices of Juvenile Services and Violence Prevention, local probation offices and juvenile courts.
Ashford, who is chairman of the Legislature's Judiciary Committee, said his proposal would save money in the long run by treating troubled teens in community-based programs instead of more expensive state and county detention facilities.
The lawmaker, who is a candidate in the Omaha mayor's race, said his bill would allow judges to keep troubled teens in care until age 21 instead of the current cutoff at 19.
“We have this deplorable system that is broken,” Ashford said. “Our kids are getting worse instead of better. It's driving a lot of the violence.”
Ashford said he plans to introduce his proposal as early as next week in the Legislature, which begins its 90-day session today. The bill is patterned after similar approaches in Washington state and Texas. It seeks $10 million in additional funds for counties to develop new community-based services.
Sen. Tom Hansen of North Platte, a member of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee, said the price tag might be problematic.
Advocates for more early childhood education programs are also seeking $10 million in additional funds, and Gov. Dave Heineman is seeking increased spending on state universities and colleges, as well as an income tax cut.
“There are lots of requests out there,” Hansen said.
Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln said there have been plenty of attempts to reorganize and improve the juvenile justice system but said they have always lacked appropriate funding, oversight and leadership.
Dr. Kayla Pope, a psychiatrist with the Boys Town National Research Hospital, said she supports Ashford's proposal.
“Whenever you coordinate resources and consolidate them under one roof, you can be more effective and more efficient,” Pope said.
Trauma and mental health problems are often undiagnosed in teens, she said. Without proper treatment, still-developing kids who witness domestic or gang violence or who become assault victims don't know how to respond appropriately, Pope said.
The statistics, she said, are alarming: Three-fourths of all boys who enter the juvenile justice system have been victims of physical abuse, and half of all girls in the system have been sexually assaulted.
In recent years, concerns have focused on increased assaults and overmedication at the state-run Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers in Kearney and Geneva. Officials have discussed whether state corrections officials should oversee those facilities instead of HHS.
Ashford said his bill would put those two centers, as well as youth centers in Douglas and Lancaster Counties, under the new state juvenile agency.
He said he was prompted to introduce his ambitious proposal by the continued street shootings in Omaha, his committee's study of teen truancy, and cases like that of Robbie Hawkins, the mentally troubled 19-year-old who shot and killed eight people at Omaha's Von Maur department store in 2007 before killing himself.
One provision in the bill would have all crimes committed by juveniles filed first in juvenile court, with provision that the most serious cases could be transferred to adult court. That would reverse the current practice, in which serious crimes are filed first in adult court.
A recent pilot project to better focus services for troubled teens and prevent them from becoming state wards has shown promise in saving money and decreasing truancy and repeat crimes.
Ashford said the pilots in the Omaha, North Platte and Scottsbluff areas would continue but would come under the new state agency instead of the state probation office, under his proposal.
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