LINCOLN — State juvenile detention centers in Kearney and Geneva seem much more likely to remain open after a public hearing Thursday in the Nebraska Legislature.
A bill that proposes closing the costly centers to fund other methods of helping juvenile offenders drew an overflow crowd to the Judiciary Committee.
At the end of the three-hour hearing, State Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, the committee chairman and the bill's sponsor, tried to assure those who rallied in support of the centers and the 255 employees who work at them.
“I will pledge to you I will try to make it work so that both facilities can continue, but there has to be a willingness to change,” he said.
Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha, one of the bill's co-sponsors, testified that he and other senators remain highly committed to overhauling Nebraska's juvenile justice system this session. Their guiding principle: lock up far fewer youths while providing services so troubled children and their families get treatment at home.
“Now it's time to pitch in, roll our sleeves up and solve this problem,” Krist said. “This is the year these changes need to be made in a substantive manner.”
So although the Kearney and Geveva centers may remain open, it seems likely they will admit fewer juveniles and will change their types of treatment.
In the case of Kearney, Ashford suggested perhaps half the 550 or so youths sent there each year would do better in less-restrictive services in their home communities.
Bill sponsors are motivated by a recent national study that shows Nebraska has bucked the recent trend in most states by increasing the number of children it locks up. Research shows detention leads to higher recidivism rates than community-based treatment methods.
Community treatment also costs substantially less than the $90,000 per year to house a girl at the Geneva center or the $66,000 for each boy at Kearney, advocates say. The state spends about $20 million annually to operate the two facilities.
Another major provision of the bill would eliminate the Office of Juvenile Services, which falls under the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. The bill would replace it with the Office of Juvenile Assistance, overseen by the judicial branch.
Thomas Pristow, director of children and family services for HHS, testified in support of the bill.
Several nonprofit groups devoted to helping children overcome poverty, drugs and violence also urged the committee not to back away from reform.
“Transform our state to one that is not leading in detention of youth but to one leading in engagement of youth,” said John Cavanaugh, director of Building Bright Futures in Omaha.
Others, including several county attorneys and employees at the centers, cautioned lawmakers not to rush to empty Geneva and Kearney of juveniles.
“Some of these kids, even at a younger age, are pretty dangerous,” said Hall County Attorney Mark Young, who testified on behalf of the Nebraska County Attorneys Association.
Others brought up past reform efforts by the state to privatize the child-welfare system and move people with chronic mental illness out of regional centers and into community settings. They argued those efforts weren't successful in all cases.
They also argued many of the state's smaller-population counties lack the sorts of community services that exist in Omaha and Lincoln. They raised concerns that the reform effort will shift the cost of caring for juvenile offenders from the state to the counties.
Others warned that community services are effective only when the children and their parents make a sincere effort to change problem behaviors.
“Sometime the family is the problem, the neighborhoods are the problem, the schools are the problem,” said Nancy Lyon, a teacher at the Kearney center for nearly 30 years. “We stabilize them. We eliminate the clutter out of their lives so they can work on their own issues.”
Although the committee took no action on the bill Thursday, Ashford anticipates it will be named a priority either by the committee or himself. A priority designation would ensure it comes before the full Legislature this session.
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