LINCOLN — Nebraska has one of the highest juvenile lockup rates in the country, a distinction that comes as lawmakers consider reform of the state's juvenile-justice system.

Nebraska ranked third among the states in 2010 in incarceration rates for juvenile offenders, according to an analysis released today by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The analysis also indicated that Nebraska was one of only six states to increase its rate of juvenile incarceration between 1997 and 2010, which advocates say points to the need to change how the system deals with youth offenders.

The six states went against a national trend that saw youth lockup rates decrease by 37 percent.

The report could provide momentum to a juvenile-justice reform effort in Nebraska that includes a legislative proposal to close the state's youth rehabilitation centers in Kearney and Geneva. Reform advocates argue that the centers house too many juveniles who pose no threat to public safety and could be more cost-effectively treated at home or in unlocked centers.

“We're over-incarcerating kids. This is a crisis,” said Omaha Sen. Brad Ashford, chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

Ashford also sponsored Legislative Bill 561, the juvenile-justice reform proposal, which is scheduled for a March 7 public hearing at the State Capitol.

One of the top criticisms of Nebraska's system is the high rate of assaults at the youth detention centers, particularly at the boys-only campus in Kearney. Advocates blame the mixing of violent and nonviolent offenders at that location. Youths also are detained at five county juvenile-detention facilities across the state.

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Ashford and other reform advocates say many youths reoffend after their releases. More than half return to Lincoln and Omaha.

Another problem is that juvenile and adult court judges in Nebraska have fewer options for the placement of youth offenders than in other states. Advocates say Nebraska must work to develop alternative treatment programs to provide judges with less-restrictive options.

In 2010, Nebraska incarcerated 750 youths, which translated to a rate of 378 per 100,000, the Casey Foundation reported. Only South Dakota, Wyoming and the District of Columbia had higher youth incarceration rates.

Nebraska's youth incarceration rate between 1997 and 2010 increased by 8 percent. In Iowa, the same rate decreased by 26 percent.

The report also listed Nebraska's rates of minority juvenile incarceration at 1 out of 50 African-American youths and 1 out of 100 Native American youths.

The Casey Foundation, a Baltimore-based philanthropy, has been a leading voice for the reduction in youth incarceration nationally. Its analysis was based on figures obtained from a count of juveniles in residential placement by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The World-Herald was provided a copy of the report Tuesday in advance of its release. A spokesman for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, which operates the Kearney and Geneva centers, said agency officials would need time to review the report before offering a reaction.

Many states that have closed juvenile lockups or sharply cut their populations in recent years point to studies that indicate less-restrictive, community-based services reduce the rate of reoffending. They also cost fewer tax dollars than detention centers staffed around-the-clock.

“This report reveals the urgent need for reform to the systems that serve our youth in Nebraska,” said Carolyn Rooker, executive director of Voices for Children in Nebraska. “Incarcerating youth is harmful, ineffective and extremely costly.”

The foundation report recommends that policymakers direct confinement be used only with youths who pose the greatest risk to public safety. It also recommends investing in alternatives that provide supervised treatment for juveniles in their homes and communities.

Nationally, youth incarceration peaked at nearly 108,000 in 1995. That number dropped to fewer than 71,000 in 2010. The decline has not led to a surge in juvenile crime, the Casey Foundation report stated.

Nonetheless, the United States still leads the industrialized world in the number of youths it incarcerates, the foundation reported.

Contact the writer: 402-473-9587, joe.duggan@owh.com

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