LINCOLN — Nebraska lawmakers will consider closing juvenile detention centers in Kearney and Geneva after legislation was introduced Wednesday proposing comprehensive reform of how the state deals with young offenders.
Omaha Sen. Brad Ashford, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, called the centers outdated and ineffective during a news conference at the State Capitol. He and three other senators said they would rather invest in community-based programs for abused, neglected and mentally ill youth, which they say will better reduce violence and save tax dollars.
“We need to stop punishing our children and transform our juvenile justice system,” Ashford said.
The ambitious proposal would create new programs to reshape juvenile justice while closing the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers in Kearney and Geneva by 2015. Shutting down the centers would free up $19 million annually for developing community-based treatment services across the state, Ashford said.
The centers served about 560 juvenile offenders last year and employ about 265 workers, he said.
Some of the staff members would be given employment opportunities with the state Department of Correctional Services, Ashford said, although he wasn’t able to provide specifics about how such transfers would work.
Officials with state Department of Health and Human Services, which manages the centers, declined comment Wednesday, saying they had not yet read the legislation.
Geneva Mayor Rod Norrie reacted with shock when told of the proposal Wednesday afternoon.
He said closing the center and removing its 100 full-time jobs would have a significant impact on the school system, housing market and overall economy in his community. Geneva, population 2,200, is located about 125 miles southwest of Omaha.
“We’d take a big hit,” he said. “It’s one of our largest employers.”
Carolyn Rooker, director of Voices for Children Nebraska, said when low-risk juvenile offenders are placed in detention, they are more likely to commit crimes after their release. Detention fails to address underlying issues that got the juveniles in trouble in the first place.
“We are encouraged by proposals put forward by senators that will remove youth from harmful, inappropriate environments,” Rooker said.
Legislative Bill 561 would dissolve the Office of Juvenile Services and create an Office of Juvenile Assistance to be overseen by the judicial branch. The new office would coordinate juvenile probation and services related to diversion and violence prevention. Programs would be regularly evaluated to keep what worked and jettison what didn’t, Ashford said.
The proposal also seeks to expand the Nebraska Juvenile Service Delivery Project, a pilot project in Omaha, North Platte and Scottsbluff. The project has resulted in sharply lower rates of repeat offenses among the roughly 600 children in Douglas County, said Omaha Sen. Bob Krist, one of the sponsors of the reform effort.
The bill also would create a community-based juvenile services aid program funded by a $10 million state appropriation. In part, the goal would be to create alternatives for juveniles currently made wards of the state to receive treatment.
Juveniles who are charged as adults would continue to be dealt with in the adult prison system and those who represent threats to public safety would be detained in county juvenile facilities, Ashford said. But the majority of juveniles currently housed at the Kearney and Geneva centers are nonviolent offenders, he said.
Research has shown seven out of 10 juveniles in the justice system have a major mental illness that is either untreated or inadequately addressed.
Also standing in support of the reform effort Wednesday were Sen. Kathy Campbell of Lincoln, chairwoman of the Health and Human Services Committee; and Sen. Amanda McGill of Lincoln, a Judiciary Committee member.
McGill said she introduced a bill, LB 556, that would require mental health screenings for Nebraska children at the same time they receive school physicals.
Treating the effects of abuse, neglect or mental illness early on in children is cheaper than running detention centers or prisons, Krist said.
“If we don’t spend money on the front side,” he said, “we’re going to have a bigger bill on the back side.”
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