Nebraska chief justice: Guardianship, juvenile probation initiatives show success

Chief Justice Mike Heavican, left, shakes hands with Sen. Dan Watermeier of Syracuse on the opening day of the Nebraska Legislature at the Nebraska State Capitol in Lincoln on Jan. 9, 2013.

LINCOLN — Tighter court oversight of guardians and conservators in recent months has exposed cases of theft and misuse of funds, Nebraska's top judge said Thursday.

Chief Justice Michael Heavican said changes to state law made in 2011 are providing more protection for vulnerable adults in Nebraska.

But he said the court system is continuing to look for ways to simplify reporting requirements for guardians without weakening protections.

Some guardians have complained that the new requirements are too onerous, especially for spouses.

Heavican touched on the guardianship improvements in his State of the Judiciary speech to the Legislature.

The guardianship changes were passed in response to problems uncovered by The World-Herald. In the most egregious case, Dinah Turrentine-Sims, a court-appointed guardian-conservator, was able to steal more than $400,000 from eight of her wards in Douglas County.

In his speech, Heavican also talked about court initiatives in the areas of child welfare and juvenile justice issues, sentencing alternatives, technology and interpreter services.

“The core mission of the Nebraska judicial branch is the delivery of justice in a fair and timely manner,” he said. “Justice may be as mundane as paying a traffic fine or as significant as protecting the constitutional rights of an accused in a capital case.”

He told lawmakers that a juvenile probation pilot project endorsed by the Legislature last year has shown early success.

Since July 1, he said, 80 percent of the juvenile offenders involved with the project have been able to remain at home rather than be institutionalized while receiving services.

Eighty percent of participants also successfully completed their probation — a proportion higher than the statewide average, Heavican said.

Lawmakers voted last year to expand the project from metropolitan Omaha to the areas served by courts in North Platte and Scottsbluff.

About 600 youths in those three areas have participated in the project since July 1.

The project makes it possible for juvenile offenders to get treatment and services without having to become wards of the state, which costs more and takes more court time.

Heavican also highlighted two efforts to keep adult offenders out of jails and prisons.

Specialty drug courts, which address the drug abuse that underlies many crimes, will be available in all 12 judicial districts across Nebraska for the first time this year.

There are 25 such courts in operation now, he said, and a recent evaluation by University of Nebraska researchers found that they compare well with drug courts across the nation in graduation rates, recidivism and cost efficiency.

Another sentencing alternative aims at felons with chronic drug problems. The specialized probation program keeps people out of jail and prison — nearly 90 percent of graduates are not arrested again within a year — but is at capacity, Heavican said.

He noted that courts in Nebraska deal with more than 400,000 new cases each year and that probation officers supervise about 17,000 adults and children.

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