State lawmakers gave initial approval Thursday to a piece of the proposed overhaul of Nebraska's juvenile justice system.
Senators voted 39-0 to give 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 the prosecutor and a hearing before the juvenile court.
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.
"It is not hard to understand why we incarcerate more juveniles than only three other states," said Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, the bill's sponsor. "The system is weighted toward the corrections model -- a prosecutorial model -- and not the treatment model.
"This is an incredibly important part of the juvenile justice package that is moving through the Judiciary Committee," said Ashford, who chairs the committee.
Several bills have been introduced to move the juvenile justice system from a largely punitive model to one focusing on intervention and treatment.
A recent report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation said that while the rate of youth incarceration in the United States decreased by 40 percent over the past 15 years, Nebraska is one of six states that have seen increases.
In 2010, 750 Nebraska youths were incarcerated, putting Nebraska's rate at one in 250 and ranking it the fourth highest in the nation.
There are more than 7,000 criminal filings against juveniles in Nebraska each year, Ashford said. In 2012, 4,537 were charged as adults; of those cases, 794 were transferred to juvenile court.
"The vast majority of juveniles prosecuted in adult court committed minor offenses which should be handled in a juvenile court environment," Ashford said.
In 2010, for example, 45 percent of the criminal filings against youths were in adult court despite the fact that nearly 90 percent of charges were misdemeanors, he said.
Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus, a former prosecutor, said during the debate Nebraska's county attorneys were being wrongly portrayed.
"The decisions that a prosecutor makes are in the best interests of the children and in the best interest of moving things forward," he said. "A prosecutor will rarely file in adult court unless he thinks there is a very good reason. We are doing a disservice to paint them with a black brush. I just think it's unfair."
Ashford said requiring more cases to originate in juvenile court will give more young offenders a chance at rehabilitation and reduce their chance of having a criminal record.
He has said about 70 percent of the children in the juvenile justice system have histories of physical abuse, and 40 percent of the girls have histories of sexual abuse.
"They need treatment, not punishment," said Ashford.
He acknowledged, however, that some juvenile cases belong in adult court.
"There are going to be cases, clearly very serious cases -- homicides -- where juveniles are involved," he said. "I cannot even imagine a serious felony murder case or homicide case would not be transferred back up to the adult court."
Sarah Forrest, a policy coordinator for Voices for Children in Nebraska, sent a memo to lawmakers Thursday urging support for the measure.
"Children need our care and protection to grow, thrive, and become productive members of our society," she said. "When a young person breaks the law, we must respond in a thoughtful way that gives children their best possible chance at success, while still ensuring the safety of our communities."
Anne Hobbs, director of the Juvenile Justice Institute at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, spoke in favor of the measure.
"Treating juveniles like adults has some of the least effective outcomes," Hobbs said. "Processing youth through adult courts assumes that the youth is developmentally capable of making the same decisions that an adult can make. Many states are now incorporating the research on adolescent brain development and revising statutes accordingly."