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Filibuster kills bill to give every juvenile offender the right to attorney
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Filibuster kills bill to give every juvenile offender the right to attorney

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Since Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks arrived in the state Legislature in 2015, she's been working to ensure juvenile offenders across Nebraska are represented by attorneys. 

She succeeded in 2016 in passing a law that provides attorneys for all juvenile offenders in Lancaster, Douglas and Sarpy counties. Youths can consult with an attorney even if they're considering waiving the right to an attorney.

Her quest to take that right statewide died Wednesday when she couldn't get 33 votes to stop a filibuster of the bill (LB158). She came up two votes short with a 31-8 vote on the cloture motion, with four senators present not voting and six excused for the day. 

"I will continue to fight for these kids in our state," she said on the floor of the Legislature at the end of the debate. 

Sen. Mike Groene led the fight against the bill, which would allow all kids who find themselves in juvenile court to be represented by a lawyer. If they are unable to afford an attorney, one would be appointed at county expense. The youth could waive her or his right to counsel.

The bill would also have created a fund for indigent families to save the counties money, Pansing Brooks said. 

Groene said he fought the bill because he favored parental and individual rights.

Families in counties other than Lancaster, Douglas and Sarpy didn't want the bill, he said. The judges, public defender and county attorney in his district agreed with his opposition. 

Groene said the bill would require many families to have to pay attorneys fees, when the youth and family just want to accept the consequences and move on. 

Sens. Steve Erdman of Bayard and Steve Halloran of Hastings also opposed the bill, saying the requirement doesn't work for rural counties. 

Once an attorney is working for a juvenile offender, Erdman said, it's difficult to dismiss them, even though the bill would have allowed that. 

Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers said justice should be available to everybody, all over the state. All young people should have a right to a lawyer.

"I'm sick and tired of three rural senators making all the people in the rural areas seem like they're from a different planet," Chambers said. 

According to a Voices for Children in Nebraska report, more than 10,000 youths were arrested in the state in 2015, and about 62 percent of youth in juvenile court had access to lawyers. 

Pansing Brooks said studies show high rates of waivers by youth of the right to an attorney are accompanied by high rates of plea agreements. 

Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne said kids can be taken to court for minor offenses. Twelve-year-olds who get in fights at school are being charged with mutual assault — all over the state. 

Legal charges can affect their ability to get jobs, even at a fast-food restaurant, he said.

Families should have the right to hear what legally happens when their child is arrested, he said.  

Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSLegislature.

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