10_1_19 YRTC fence, north side (copy) (copy)

The 10-foot chain-link fence around the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center at Kearney.

The Ricketts administration is making sweeping changes in how it structures and operates the state facilities in Kearney and Geneva for juvenile offenders. It’s a complex restructuring, and the administration has an obligation to offer credible arguments for why the new approach is the soundest and most practical option.

Female and male offenders will be housed at facilities in Kearney and Lincoln under the changes, for example. It’s imperative that the state provide adequate separation and security. In addition, the new plan will involve far greater transferring of youths among various facilities, including a new one to be created in Lincoln. The Geneva center will house only a small number of girls. The state needs to explain how such an approach offers the best opportunities for treatment as well as the best use of taxpayer dollars.

Traditionally, the state Department of Health and Human Services has kept female offenders at the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center in Geneva and male offenders at a counterpart facility in Kearney. Under the changes, most female youths will be kept at the Kearney facility, in areas separate from males.

In August, HHS ordered the removal of all female residents from the Geneva facility after it fell into crisis in the wake of staff shortages, inadequate rehabilitative programming and buildings in severe disrepair. The new HHS plan calls for the Geneva center, now being renovated, to house three to six girls who have completed programming and are getting ready for life in the community. The Geneva center housed 28 girls when it was emptied this summer.

Also in the new plan: The state will place all male and female youths at the Kearney center for their initial assessments. Youths with especially severe behavioral and mental health problems, such as acting aggressively toward others and harming themselves, will receive treatment at a new center in Lincoln. Once stabilized, they will move back to the Kearney facility to continue treatment or prepare for returning to their home communities.

HHS will phase in the new plan slowly, starting in January, said Dannette Smith, the department’s CEO. The changes will fit within the existing departmental budget and are an “immediate and intermediate step,” she said, as HHS develops a longer-term proposal.

States often face major challenges, no question, in trying to address the needs of juvenile offenders. But as this complex new plan is unrolled, Nebraska officials need to offer clear explanations for why their plan is the best to serve the public interest.

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