LINCOLN — Nebraska lawmakers gave a first-round thumbs-up to changing how the state deals with youngsters who run afoul of the law.
Legislative Bill 561 aims to deal with more of those youths at home rather than putting them in local detention centers or the state institutions at Kearney and Geneva.
“This is a sea change in the way that Nebraska is going to address the needs of juveniles in this state,” said State Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln.
The bill would shift responsibility for all 3,500 or so juvenile offenders from the Department of Health and Human Services to the state's Office of Probation Administration.
Probation officers already have taken on responsibility for offenders in the Omaha, North Platte and Scottsbluff areas.
The measure also would set strict standards on which youngsters could be sent to the state's two Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers. The Kearney center is for boys, the Geneva one for girls.
The original version of LB 561 called for closing the two centers. As amended by the Judiciary Committee, the bill would reserve the centers for what some lawmakers termed “the worst of the worst.”
The state spends about $20 million per year on the Kearney and Geneva centers, which house about 260 juveniles at any given time. Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, the Judiciary Committee chairman, has said that number could be cut in half.
In addition, the bill would create a community and family re-entry process for youths leaving the Kearney and Geneva centers and would encourage county attorneys to set up youth diversion programs.
The bill won praise from senators, some of whom noted that probation officers have succeeded in keeping more youths at home and out of further trouble in the three areas where the system has been tried.
But others raised concerns about whether the bill would provide enough money to create the community services envisioned.
“If we don't fund this the way we should, are the counties going to have to pick it up?” asked Sen. Russ Karpisek of Wilber.
As advanced, the bill would put $10 million a year into an existing grant program for counties to develop new services. The grant program currently makes $1.6 million available each year.
On the other hand, Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha, the Appropriations Committee chairman, warned that the price tag on LB 561 would eat up half the money available for new legislative spending or tax cuts.
“We've got to balance this priority with other priorities on the floor,” he said.
Ashford acknowledged that he will have to work on paying for more community-based programs before the bill comes back for second-round debate.
Included in the bill is funding for a new juvenile court judge in Douglas County that 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.
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