Centers at Kearney and Geneva that house juvenile offenders would be closed and the state would move to a treatment-based system, under a proposal introduced Wednesday by a group of four lawmakers.
Sens. Brad Ashford and Bob Krist of Omaha and Kathy Campbell and Amanda McGill of Lincoln co-sponsored a bill (LB561) Wednesday to reorganize the juvenile justice system to focus on mental health treatment instead of punishment.
"We must focus our resources on treatment and rehabilitation rather than institutional confinement," Ashford said. "We need to stop punishing our children and transform our juvenile justice system into a continuum of care that identifies the mental health issues and trauma that cause children to come in contact with the system."
Ashford said about 70 percent of the children in the juvenile justice system have a history of physical abuse, and 40 percent of the girls have a history of sexual abuse.
"The rates for emotional abuse and severe neglect are even higher," Ashford said. "Children who end up in the juvenile justice system are far more likely to witness domestic violence and violence in their schools and communities. By the time children end up in the juvenile justice system, approximately 70 percent of them will have a major mental illness which is undiagnosed, untreated or inappropriately treated.
"Trauma in these children is not systematically screened or treated. We reap what we sow," Ashford said. "Children who end up in the juvenile justice system were victims long before they became offenders."
The measure would allocate $10 million to establish community-based treatment options for young offenders. Another bill (LB556) by McGill would require, among other things, mental-health screenings for children entering kindergarten and seventh and ninth grades to identify issues and get them treatment before they become problem students.
"There are ... kids out there whose needs are not being met,'' McGill said.
The $21 million spent each year at the youth treatment centers would be allocated to the court system to help set up treatment programs. The centers would close by January 2015.
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.
Ashford said most of the employees at the youth treatment centers -- who now work for the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Juvenile Services -- would be assimilated into the Department of Correctional Services.