Nebraska lawmakers moved Wednesday toward committing $14.5 million in new spending as part of a massive overhaul of Nebraska's juvenile justice system.
The money was contained in a bill (LB561a) and means Nebraska will be spending $44 million per year for juvenile justice services once the new system is up and running. The bill was given second-round approval on a voice vote and now faces one more round of consideration.
The main overhaul bill (LB561), by Omaha Sen. Brad Ashford, would reorganize the juvenile justice system to focus on mental health treatment instead of punishment. The mission of juvenile offender centers at Kearney and Geneva would change under the plan.
That bill also faces one more round of consideration.
The measure is co-sponsored by Sens. Bob Krist of Omaha and Kathy Campbell and Amanda McGill of Lincoln.
Ashford said about 70 percent of children in the juvenile justice system have histories of physical abuse, and 40 percent of the girls have histories of sexual abuse.
He said children in the system are far more likely to witness domestic violence and violence in their schools and communities. By the time they end up in the juvenile justice system, 70 percent have a major mental illness that is undiagnosed, untreated or inappropriately treated, he said.
Ashford said the bill emphasizes working with the families of juvenile offenders.
"This is incredibly important," Ashford said. "We will place a premium on keeping juveniles in their homes. We want to keep families together."
The $21 million spent each year at the youth treatment centers would go to the court system to help set up treatment programs.
Ashford's bill would create an Office of Juvenile Assistance under the court system to oversee juvenile probation, a statewide expansion of the Nebraska Juvenile Service Delivery Project, coordination of work with local and national experts in the delivery of evidence-based services, the Office of Violence Prevention and the newly created Office of Juvenile Diversion Programs and Detention Alternatives.
The bill also will allow the hiring of 77 new probation officers across the state and give judges direct, ongoing jurisdiction over juveniles who appear before them, which has not been the case.
"The system has not worked," Ashford said. "We have not had ... the monitoring or accountability."
Earlier in the session, lawmakers gave first-round approval to a bill (LB464) that would require criminal charges against anyone younger than 18 to be filed in juvenile court. Cases could be transferred to adult court upon a motion by a prosecutor and hearings before juvenile courts.
Nebraska is one of the few states that allows juvenile cases to be filed in adult court first and gives prosecutors broad authority in deciding whether to file charges in adult or juvenile court. As a result, about 50 percent of all juvenile cases are prosecuted in adult court, which can mean long prison terms instead of shorter stays in juvenile facilities.