LINCOLN — State lawmakers have put a $14.5 million price tag on reforming Nebraska’s juvenile justice system.
Senators on Wednesday voted 35-0 to advance a bill that pays for an overhauled approach to treating children who violate the law. The $14.5 million represents new state money to be spent over the next two-year budget.
The goal is to create a system that relies on community services to keep most youthful offenders in their homes, rather than lock them in county detention centers or state institutions in Kearney and Geneva.
“The whole focus is the child,” said State Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha, one of the co-sponsors of the reform plan. “We’re going to treat kids like kids.”
Just how the state will pay for the new system came into sharper focus Wednesday. The funding bill was advanced to the final round of consideration.
The reform plan shifts responsibility for the state’s roughly 3,500 juvenile offenders away from the Department of Heath and Human Services to the Office of Probation Administration.
The funding bill budgets $6 million in new state money for the fiscal year starting in July and another $8.5 million for the following year.
Those figures would be on top of millions in existing funds to be transferred from one department to the other as the transition takes place.
A total of $44 million will be appropriated to run the system under the probation office after the transition is complete in 2014.
Much of the new funding will pay for transition expenses along with the hiring and training of 77 new probation officers.
In the new system, juveniles will be assigned a probation officer who makes sure the children and their families receive services.
Reformers want to significantly decrease the number of juveniles held in locked facilities. A recent survey found that Nebraska has the nation’s third-highest incarceration rate for juvenile offenders. Detention will be reserved for the most serious offenders who present a danger to themselves or the public.
The appropriation bill that advanced Wednesday contained less money than originally proposed for a grant program that helps counties develop new services to treat and monitor juveniles.
The sponsors wanted $10 million per year for the grant program, but it was amended to $1.5 million in the first year and $3.5 million in the second year.
The grant program currently receives about $1.5 million per year, so the bill will add to the money available for counties.
Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said it was more important to devote adequate funding for the transition of services between departments.
He was referring to the overlap period when HHS still needs funding for juveniles under its care while the probation office ramps up to receive an influx of new cases.
Inadequate funding contributed to the failure of the child welfare privatization effort several years ago, said Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln. He and other senators expressed hope that those failures won’t be repeated with juvenile justice reform.
County boards, particularly in rural areas, are unsure if the money for the grant program will be adequate, said Larry Dix, director of the Nebraska Association of County Officials. Many counties lack the community services that will be essential for the reform effort to succeed.
It will be important for state officials to frequently review the new system during its first year and adjust as needed, Dix said.
Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, who introduced the reform bill, said treating juveniles through the probation office will save the state money in the long term.
The savings will come from having fewer children made wards of the state, putting fewer children in costly detention and tapping into private insurance of parents who have such resources.
Advocates for the overhaul wanted to see a bit more funding, especially for the grant program, said Sarah Forrest, juvenile justice policy coordinator with Voices for Children in Nebraska.
“But this is a good first step,” she said. “Kids are going to benefit, definitely.”
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