Juvenile legal counsel measure advanced

Lawmakers advanced a bill from general file April 7 that would ensure legal representation for juveniles facing removal from their home by the state.

Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks
Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks

Under LB307, sponsored by Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, if a juvenile waives the right to legal counsel, the court would be required to affirmatively show that the juvenile would not be removed from their home or detained outside of the home:
• between adjudication and disposition of the case;
• during any probationary period; or
• in response to an alleged probation violation.

Pansing Brooks said the bill would ensure counsel in cases when the consequences for a child are the most severe.

“[Juveniles] do not even begin to have a grasp of our legal system or any of their rights because, of course, they are kids,” she said.

The Nebraska State Supreme Court would develop a process to ensure that a juvenile is provided with an opportunity to consult counsel in making the initial decision to waive counsel.

A Judiciary Committee amendment, adopted 29-3, removed a requirement in the original bill that a prosecutor waive the possibility of any pre- or post-adjudication out-of-home placement for a juvenile who waives counsel.

Supporting the bill was Sen. John Cavanaugh of Omaha. He said it would create a more just legal system that serves the needs and rights of all citizens.

“This bill will create a structure that will allow — when the most serious repercussions are being held over a [juvenile’s] head — that they have the opportunity to consult with someone who understands the process and understands what’s going to happen down the road … if things don’t go their way,” Cavanaugh said.

Lincoln Sen. Suzanne Geist raised concerns about language in LB307 that she characterized as unclear, but said she supported its goals. She said the outcomes of juvenile court cases can have a direct impact on an individual’s future involvement with the legal system.

“If we do a good job in juvenile court, detention and treatment, my hope is that we can slow the progression into adult court to a trickle,” Geist said.

North Platte Sen. Mike Groene offered an amendment to reinstate the provision removed by the Judiciary Committee amendment. He ultimately opposed the bill, saying it would violate a juvenile’s constitutionally protected right to represent themselves in court.

Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne opposed the Groene amendment. Current state law prohibits minors from entering into contracts due to their lack of maturity, he said, but does not explicitly prohibit them from making serious legal decisions on their own.

“They can’t even enter into [a contract] to buy a car when they’re 16 but we expect them to navigate a system that has lifelong consequences,” Wayne said.

Groene withdrew his amendment and senators voted 29-2 to advance LB307 to select file.

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