LINCOLN — Youth detention centers in Kearney and Geneva may eventually consolidate, but will escape immediate closure under the latest plan for revamping Nebraska's juvenile justice system.
Members of the Legislature's Judiciary Committee agreed Tuesday to prioritize a bill with a yet-to-be-finalized amendment intended to sharply reduce the number of juvenile offenders sent to the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers. Legislative Bill 561 will try to encourage greater use of community treatment as a better alternative to locked detention.
In a related matter, the committee also agreed to prioritize Legislative Bill 44, giving judges the option to sentence juvenile killers to 30 years to life in prison. Nebraska's current law mandating life without parole for young murderers has been struck down as unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The state has 27 prison inmates sentenced to life for crimes they committed as juveniles.
The priority designations greatly improve the likelihood the bills will be debated by the full Legislature before the session ends June 5.
The sponsors of the juvenile justice legislation have said Nebraska needs to move this year to reform its system, which ranks third in the nation when it comes to locking up troubled youth. Research indicates most juveniles could be rehabilitated with less-restrictive, less-expensive community programs that emphasize treatment over punishment.
But during a public hearing last week, committee members heard from those who say the centers help turn around state wards who have failed at probation, foster care or group homes.
Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, the committee chairman, said Tuesday an amendment will be drafted to allow the Kearney and Geneva centers to stay open while reducing the numbers of juveniles in detention. The amendment will likely require the state Department of Health and Human Services to come up with a plan that could result in housing male and female offenders in a single location. Girls currently stay in the Geneva center, while boys are housed in Kearney.
The state currently spends about $20 million per year on the centers, which house about 260 juveniles at any given time. Ashford has said that number could be cut in half.
During discussions Tuesday, several committee members said Geneva would likely be a better candidate to house a merged program since it has newer facilities.
The bill also calls for the statewide expansion of a pilot probation program that has reduced reoffense rates while allowing most juveniles to stay in their homes. And it seeks to appropriate $10 million to a grant program so counties can develop new community services, especially outside of Omaha and Lincoln.
The committee also attached to the bill a request for a new juvenile judge in Douglas County, which was proposed in separate legislation. The salaries and benefits for a new judge and court reporter would cost about $254,000, according to a fiscal note.
Finally, the committee advanced LB 464, which would require prosecutors to file criminal charges against minors in juvenile court rather than adult court. The bill would allow county attorneys to request the cases be moved if they want to try the juveniles as adults.
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