LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Lawmakers are promising a major push to reduce the number of incarcerated juveniles in Nebraska, with a focus on early treatment for those with behavioral problems.
Sens. Brad Ashford of Omaha and Amanda McGill of Lincoln touted a series of reform measures Friday that are set for hearings next week. Ashford said the bills seek to address what he describes as a "culture of incarceration" in Nebraska.
"This effort is essential," Ashford said. "I do not feel we can wait anymore for a real solution to our issues involving juvenile justice."
A report released Wednesday by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that Nebraska had the nation's third-highest juvenile incarceration rate in 2010. Nebraska was one of only six states where the rate has increased. Youth incarceration grew by 8 percent in Nebraska between 1997 and 2010, contrary to the national trend.
"This report reveals the urgent need for reform to the systems that serve our youth in Nebraska," said Carolyn Rooker, executive director of Voices for Children in Nebraska. "Incarcerating youth is harmful, ineffective and extremely costly."
Ashford, McGill and other lawmakers have submitted bills that are intended to help treat more juveniles in community-based settings.
Dr. Terry Lee, an adolescent psychiatry expert hired by the state to review its juvenile services, said Nebraska needs to improve the way it evaluates children who show behavioral problems. Lee said the state should separate those who need more intense treatment from those who can receive services in a less restrictive setting.
"We know that when that there's a youth problem for which an effective treatment exist, that family should receive that service," said Lee, who is based at the University of Washington. "It's my impression that there's room for growth."
Lee said Nebraska needs to establish a secure juvenile center that focuses more on treatment than incarceration. Ashford said lawmakers may be able to use the state's two Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers in Kearney and Geneva, but doing so would require them to reduce their numbers. Ashford said lawmakers hope to phase in the proposal by January 2015.
McGill said incarceration rates for juveniles vary widely by county in Nebraska, depending on how aggressively prosecutors pursue juvenile cases.
McGill is also proposing a pilot program to offer training and behavioral-health assistance to primary care doctors who treat children, to help catch problems early. She also is pressing for a state fellowship program to attract more children's behavioral experts to Nebraska and keep them in the state.
"I think it's a very important measure in preventing kids from getting to the level of contact with our courts system, and trying to get them the services beforehand," she said.