A group of Omaha people — representing police, prosecutors and social service agencies — who are working on juvenile justice received some attention while attending a recent Georgetown University seminar.
Douglas County, they were told, has the second-highest number of status offenders on juvenile probation in the nation. Status offenses are violations that are only offenses because of the person’s age, such as truancy or possession of alcohol by a minor.
Hearing that was embarrassing, said A’Jamal Byndon, coordinator of Douglas County’s efforts to address racial and ethnic disparities in the local juvenile justice system. The group, the Douglas County Racial and Ethnic Disparity Team, is digging into why that is, what effects it has and what can be done about it.
That’s one of the things that came out when several members of the group had a public panel discussion Friday at the Omaha Police Department’s northeast precinct station.
The group includes Omaha Deputy Police Chief Scott Gray, Douglas County Board Chairman Chris Rodgers, Deputy Douglas County Attorney Cara Stirts, Douglas County Youth Center Administrator Mark LeFlore and Ryan Spohn, director of the Nebraska Center for Justice Research at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
They’re charged with working on ways to reduce the disproportionately high number of racial minority youths in Douglas County’s juvenile justice system.
Truancy alone won’t get an Omaha kid locked up in youth detention or otherwise more involved with the system. Nebraska law prohibits putting kids in detention for status offenses. Stirts said the Douglas County Attorney’s Office refers all truancy cases to diversion.
But being put on juvenile probation can lead to further involvement in the juvenile justice system if youths violate the terms of their probation.
Byndon said the group doesn’t yet know how so many truant youths ended up on juvenile probation, such as whether they had committed other, more serious, offenses. The group is digging into that as part of its follow-up.
Gray said the Omaha Police Department has two officers whose sole job is to try to find services for truant youths.
One of a handful of people from the public who attended Friday’s event said that there are resources in the community but that more are needed. Lydia Turner, who works for the Greater Omaha Attendance and Learning Services (GOALS) Center, said it works with whole families of students who are struggling with attendance and connects them with community resources.
“But we’re only in four OPS schools,” she said.
Another member of the public, Kaia Phelps, made an impassioned plea for information about how she can help. She said there are often kids during school hours at the Charles B. Washington Library in north Omaha, where she works as a clerk.
Phelps, a UNO senior who grew up and still lives in north Omaha, said library policy prohibits her from calling police, and she wouldn’t want to anyway. But she said she should be able to offer the kids more than computer time or books.
“I don’t know what services to refer them to,” she said. “I don’t want to be a bystander in my own community. I want to help.”
Phelps left the meeting with business cards of some of the panelists.
Panelists said they will do more research into racial and ethnic disparities and formulate action plans. Several studies and efforts have been undertaken over the past decade, and the number of juveniles in detention has decreased in Douglas County. But the proportion of black and Latino juveniles remains high.
An earlier Omaha team that went through the Georgetown University program three years ago gained knowledge that it used to make a difference. The members found out that Omaha had a high number of school-based arrests. Gray said local officials analyzed those arrests, and changed how they operated. Omaha police have reduced school-based arrests by more than 50 % since then, he said.