Lawmakers amended and advanced a bill March 22 that would clarify the rights of individuals appearing in juvenile court.
Under LB894, introduced by Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, juvenile courts could accept a juvenile’s waiver of right to counsel only on the record in open court and confirmed in writing signed by the juvenile. The court would consider the juvenile’s age, intelligence and emotional stability in determining whether to accept such waiver.
Under no circumstance would a waiver of right to counsel be accepted for a juvenile under age 14 or for a detention hearing, dispositional hearing requiring out-of-home placement or motion to transfer a case from juvenile to adult court.
The bill also would require the juvenile court, when appointing counsel, to do so after a juvenile petition is filed but before the juvenile appears before the court. It also would ensure a juvenile’s timely right to counsel.
Law enforcement would be required to use developmentally appropriate language when explaining a juvenile’s right to counsel. The bill also would direct the state Supreme Court to establish professional standards by July 1, 2017 for all attorneys practicing in juvenile court.
Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte said LB894 is an unnecessary mandate, particularly in smaller rural counties with low numbers of juvenile court cases. He said not all counties employ a public defender and those that do may not always have the time and resources to adjudicate every case brought in juvenile court.
Omaha Sen. Bob Krist introduced an amendment on select file to address concerns raised by Groene and others. The amendment would apply the provisions of LB894 only to counties with a population of more than 150,000 people.
It also would authorize the court to find parents in contempt of court if they have accepted free counsel despite an ability to afford such counsel.
Cedar Rapids Sen. Kate Sullivan opposed the amendment. Juveniles living in rural counties also need assistance when appearing before a court, she said, adding that it is a myth that poverty only exists in Omaha and Lincoln.
“All of us would be surprised at the depths of poverty that exists all over our state,” she said. “I don’t feel comfortable telling [rural Nebraska] that representation will be given to juveniles in just a few select counties.”
The Krist amendment was adopted 33-7.
Krist introduced a second amendment, adopted 35-0, which incorporated provisions of his LB673. As amended, the bill would enable counties to establish internal guardian ad litem divisions, which would be similar to a public defender’s office.
Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha brought an amendment to the Krist amendment that clarified a judge’s authority to appoint a guardian outside of a county’s division as he or she sees fit.
The Chambers amendment was adopted 36-0.
Provisions of three additional bills were incorporated into LB894 on general file, including:
• LB709, originally introduced by Omaha Sen. Sara Howard, which would reclassify secure and nonsecure detention as detention and alternatives to detention and require additional court review of such programs;
• LB845, introduced by Pansing Brooks, which would require thorough documentation of each instance of solitary confinement of a juvenile, including the length of confinement and the race, ethnicity, age and gender of confined juveniles; and
• LB893, introduced by Pansing Brooks, which would require that a juvenile be at least 11 years old to be prosecuted or adjudicated for a criminal law violation and would give county juvenile courts jurisdiction of children who are 10 or younger who engage in conduct that otherwise would be considered a law violation.
The bill was advanced to final reading on a 33-1 vote.