Bill to increase juvenile court usage advanced

Senators advanced a bill March 21 that would result in fewer juvenile offenders being tried in adult court.

Under LB464, introduced by Omaha Sen. Brad Ashford, all charges against juveniles younger than 18 years old would be filed in juvenile court. Cases could be transferred to adult court upon a motion by the prosecutor and be heard before the juvenile court if the alleged law violation is either a felony or a misdemeanor and the juvenile was 16 or 17 years old at the time the crime was committed.

Ashford said prosecutors currently file juvenile cases in adult court regardless of the severity of the offense. In 2012, 4,537 Nebraska youth were charged as adults, he said, and a majority of those cases were for minor offenses. Requiring more cases to originate in juvenile court would give more youth a chance at rehabilitation and reduce their odds of having criminal records, he said.

Further, Ashford said, Nebraska’s juvenile justice system is based on a prosecutory model and not a rehabilitative model, which results in higher recidivism rates. The judicial system is beginning to recognize that children’s brains function differently from adults’, Ashford said, and that juveniles must receive sufficient treatment for abuse and mental health issues that may be overlooked in adult court.

“This bill is so very critical to starting the [juvenile justice] continuum in the right place, and that is the juvenile court system,” Ashford said.

A Judiciary Committee amendment, adopted 37-0, would no longer require juveniles who are committed to the Office of Juvenile Services to remain committed until they are 21 years old or legally discharged.

Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers spoke in support of the bill. Children are not miniature adults—their brains are not fully developed until they reach their 20s, he said.

“We do not want cruel and unusual punishments inflicted on children,” Chambers said. “What may not be considered cruel and unusual for an adult is cruel and unusual for a child.”

Scottsbluff Sen. John Harms also supported the bill, saying that Nebraska has one of the highest youth incarceration rates in the nation.

“Youth are more susceptible to peer pressure and incapable of weighing long-term consequences,” he said. “Juvenile court was established to recognize the unique needs and treatment of children that are not offered in adult court.”

Columbus Sen. Paul Schumacher said he was concerned about reversing the current procedure that allows county attorneys to determine in which court juvenile cases are prosecuted and instead provide judges more discretion.

“I think what we are dealing with is an attempt to channel the county attorneys’ discretion,” he said. “That really does not change the underlying issue we are dealing with, which is a juvenile system that is cumbersome and does not serve our children in the most effective way.”

Senators advanced the bill from general file on a 39-0 vote.

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