LINCOLN — Judges rather than prosecutors would decide whether to charge a juvenile offender as an adult under a bill that gained first-round approval Thursday in the Nebraska Legislature.
Supporters of Legislative Bill 464 say it will help reduce the number of juveniles held in locked confinement as a way to provide them with more effective treatment.
While several senators expressed concerns about the bill Thursday, it advanced to the second round of debate on a 39-0 vote.
County attorneys oppose the measure. In letters sent to the Judiciary Committee, they argued prosecutors carefully decide how to file such charges, often reserving adult court for minors who have gone through the juvenile system multiple times.
They also said it would add expense and workload to the legal system by requiring an additional hearing to transfer the most serious cases.
State Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, who sponsored and prioritized the bill, said too many teenagers charged with relatively minor crimes end up in adult court. His bill would require prosecutors to file motions to move a juvenile case to adult court so juvenile judges would ultimately make the call.
An analysis by Voices for Children in Nebraska determined in 2011 that about 45 percent of charges against juveniles were filed in adult court. During the same year, about 3,750 children were tried as adults.
A total of 35 states start juvenile cases in juvenile court.
By starting youthful offenders in juvenile court, they would have quicker access to services intended to address the underlying problems that led them to get in trouble, Ashford said.
“We understand this is a big, big change,” he said.
The proposal is a key part of the larger effort to reform Nebraska's juvenile justice system. Members of the Judiciary Committee want to improve rehabilitation of juvenile offenders and reduce reoffense rates by providing treatment in their homes or less-restrictive community settings.
Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers said he could not understand why prosecutors object to the change when they will still have the ability to move serious juvenile cases to adult court.
Supporters of the bill are not “bleeding hearts” who want to give juvenile offenders a slap on the wrist, he added.
“None of us on the Judiciary Committee holds to the notion that wrongful conduct should not be dealt with accordingly,” Chambers said. “We are saying adults are different than children.”
The bill will seek a roughly $300,000 appropriation to add hearing officers, who can help juvenile courts handle the heavier caseload.
Ashford said the bill must be considered in tandem with LB 561, which seeks to encourage the development of more community-based treatment programs for youths so locked detention can be reserved for those who pose the greatest risk to public safety.
LB 561 has not undergone first-round debate.
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