Most young people who land in Lancaster County’s juvenile detention center do so because they violated probation or conditions of their release during court proceedings — not for suspected felonies or violent crimes, according to a recent study.
The study, conducted as part of the county’s participation in a national initiative to find alternatives to juvenile detention, looked at 693 admissions to the detention center being handled in juvenile court, so it didn’t take into account the 105 admissions relating to charges in adult court, including more serious felonies, or juveniles being held for other counties.
But of the adolescents detained during the 18-month period studied by Anne Hobbs, director of the University of Nebraska-Omaha’s Juvenile Justice Institute, 65 percent were there because they’d either violated conditions of their release or probation. Another 14 percent were arrested on outstanding warrants. The warrants are all for teens who missed court appearances on a variety of charges or as part of probation, according to the detention center.
“Most of kids sitting there during this time frame violated somebody’s rule,” Hobbs said. “They’ve run away or done something that has upset an adult, not that they’ve broken a new law.”
Felony offenses — which are more serious crimes — comprised just 12 percent of the underlying charges for which young people were detained. The rest were less serious misdemeanors, although some could be viewed as threatening to a community, Hobbs concluded in her report. Of the underlying offenses, third-degree assault was the most common, followed by theft, shoplifting and possessing alcohol.
Just 13 percent of juveniles in the detention center came there directly because of a law violation or citation, which Lancaster County Human Services Administrator Sara Hoyle attributes to a concerted effort by the county attorney’s office to keep low-risk kids out of the juvenile justice system.
A report completed in April by the Robert F. Kennedy National Resource Center on the county’s probation system noted the county attorney’s “robust, intentional and highly successful process” for screening low-risk adolescents to keep them out of the juvenile justice system.
Of 814 young people assessed, 714 were diverted from juvenile court. They either participated in diversion, restorative justice truancy programs or were not charged.
“The county attorney has been asked to speak in other states (about the work),” Hoyle said.
Overall, the number of kids in detention trended downward during the UNO study conducted from July 1, 2016-Dec. 31, 2017. That follows a longer downward trend in the number of juvenile court cases.
The study also confirmed an issue that’s concerned county officials: Some young people remain in detention longer than they should because there aren’t enough spots in therapeutic programs and group homes.
Some of that problem has been eased by putting more young people who are waiting for an opening in Cedars' shelter, which increased its capacity over a year ago, the report notes.
Still, the study found that in 56 percent of cases, young people remained in the detention center because they were waiting for placements. Many of those therapeutic placements were out of town, as were the group homes. Only 26 percent of the young people were discharged to Lincoln group homes — the rest were out of town, Hobbs said.
The average stay at the detention center was 22 days, the study found, but those awaiting out-of-state placements were there an average of 51 days. About 45 percent spent two weeks or less in detention and 14 percent got out in a day or two.
The most common violation either of conditional release during court proceedings or probation was running away. In many cases, young people have run away from a group home or other court placement that won't allow them to return, said detention center director Shelli Schindler.
Chief Probation Officer Lori Griggs said it's important to note that kids who end up in detention for violating probation represent just a small number of those on probation and are often there for a number of reasons.
In the majority of cases, probation officers work with kids and families to correct their behavior and keep them on track — and that sometimes gets lost in the conversation, Griggs said.
“We work with 500 to 600 kids on any given day,” she said. “We’re talking about 2 to 3 percent we are constantly seeing.”
Overall, the study of the probation system and the one done as part of the federal juvenile detention initiative show that the county is doing a good job, but those in different facets of the system need to communicate better and improve data collection, Griggs said. The UNO study, still in draft form, will be formalized and used by officials to come up with a plan to improve the system.
The study also found:
* Black and Native students are over-represented and on average stay a week longer than their white counterparts.
* Younger boys — ages 13 to 15 — who have been detained previously tend to spend a longer time in detention.
* About 50 percent of the young people in detention come back, and those who've been there more than once stay longer.