The cornerstone bill of a proposed overhaul of Nebraska's juvenile justice system appears headed for passage by state lawmakers.
The bill (LB561) by Omaha Sen. Brad Ashford was given second-round approval Wednesday on a voice vote. It faces one more round of consideration.
It 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.
"We have seen so many juveniles in our system incarcerated unnecessarily that their outcomes have been difficult," Ashford said.
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 a 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.
The accompanying appropriations bill calls for spending $10 million a year to establish community-based treatment options for young offenders. But that likely will be revised downward by the time the bill is passed, said Sen. Heath Mello, chairman of the Appropriations Committee.
Ashford said the bill emphasizes working with the families of juvenile offenders.
"We have seen the lack of attention given to the families from which these juveniles come," he said. "It's this lack of attention to the families that has bothered me over the years and invigorated me ... to figure out a way to ... model a system of juvenile justice that will ensure that when a young person gets in trouble, that that young person is given every possible alternative to remain in their home."
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.
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 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, some 50 percent of all juvenile cases are prosecuted in adult court, which can mean long prison terms instead of shorter stays in juvenile facilities.