In 2013, Nebraska officials began making needed changes in how the state handles juvenile offenders. The improved juvenile justice approach has achieved benefits, a new audit finds. It has provided more in-home services and proved more cost-efficient.
At the same time, a glaring shortcoming remains: The state Administrative Office of Probation needs to cooperate with Julie Rogers, the state inspector general for child welfare, to provide needed transparency for her investigations into teen suicides and suicide attempts in the juvenile justice system.
The state shifted control of the youths from the Department of Health and Human Services to Probation after pilot projects in Douglas County, North Platte and Scottsbluff/Gering indicated the benefits of such a change.
A report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation at the time found that Nebraska had the nation’s fourth-highest rate of youth incarceration.
Nebraska leaders rightly sought options to address the problem by boosting in-home and community-based services.
An audit released this week by the Legislature’s Performance Audit Committee analyzed the juvenile justice budget trends.
It’s encouraging that over three years, community-based services have increased as a share of Probation’s juvenile services budget while overall expenditures have fallen by 17%.
The decline stemmed in part from a drop in the number of youths served and a reduction in the number of youths in institutionalized group care, the most expensive level of treatment.
Spending for such “congregate care” declined over three years by 57% as the number of youths in that category was reduced by 45%.
Working to maintain cost effectiveness is a constant challenge, Probation officials stress. Taking on the juvenile duties has required increased spending on administration and supervision.
The transition by Probation leaders and staff members to assume these new duties was enormously complex and arduous, requiring a series of major adjustments. It’s a tribute to Probation’s professionalism that the change has brought notable benefits.
Juvenile justice work is inherently difficult, though, and individual cases can be especially challenging.
Suicides sometimes occur among delinquent youths. So do suicide attempts. The Legislature created the post of inspector general for child welfare in 2012 to monitor such incidents.
Oversight by an outside party helps agencies analyze procedures for possible improvement and is superior to relying solely on in-house study.
Such legislative oversight has shown its benefit repeatedly in Nebraska state government in regard to child welfare management, the prison system and the Beatrice State Developmental Center.
Rogers’ recently released annual report states that she abandoned her investigations into three suicides and 15 suicide attempts by youths under Probation supervision because of a lack of information. As of June 1018, Probation refused her requests to interview Probation staff and to receive data on the cases, the report said. Probation argues that Rogers, who works for the Legislature, is encroaching on the proper authority of the judicial branch, of which Probation is a part.
This stalemate between the inspector general’s office and Probation continues despite both parties assuring state senators in 2016 that they had negotiated an agreement on the matter. Last year Nebraska’s longtime ombudsman, Marshall Lux, wrote a lengthy memorandum to state senators expressing concern over the deadlock.
This stalemate ill serves the public interest. Oversight and accountability are crucial in state government, and certainly in matters involving the safety of the state’s young people. A clash between branches of government mustn’t get in the way of enabling the state to improve the care of vulnerable, and often emotionally fragile, youths.
Probation has made laudable achievements in taking on juvenile justice duties, but the stalemate with Rogers must end. Chief Justice Michael Heavican and Nebraska legislative leaders have an obligation to push for a resolution, once and for all, of this harmful stalemate.