Chief justice outlines achievements, challenges

Focusing on juvenile justice reform and sentencing alternatives, Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Heavican delivered his State of the Judiciary address to the Legislature Jan. 17.

While the core mission of the judicial branch has remained the same since Nebraska became a state in 1867, Heavican said, the way the mission is carried out has changed over the years.

“And 2013 was a year of especially significant change for Nebraska’s courts,” he said.

The expansion of juvenile justice within the state’s probation system has been one of the biggest challenges that the judicial branch has undertaken in recent years, Heavican said.

Legislation passed in 2013 required the state Office of Probation Administration to expand services to juveniles. Heavican said the implementation effort has involved the hiring of 171 new probation staff and encouraging local communities to provide additional services for juveniles and their families.

Heavican also called attention to the Court’s efforts in adult sentencing alternatives. Community corrections alternatives to incarceration include drug and specialty courts and Probation’s Specialized Substance Abuse Supervision programs, known as SSAS.

These alternative sentencing programs provide varying levels of supervision along with services such as substance abuse treatment, employment, education, life-skills training and mentoring, he said.

A review of the SSAS program in 2012 found that 91 percent of the individuals who successfully completed the program remained crime-free one year later, Heavican said.

The chief justice also noted challenges facing the judicial branch, including guardianship reform for incapacitated adults and language barriers to court access.

A rapidly aging population has lead to a shortage of individuals available to serve as guardians for elderly, mentally ill or developmentally challenged Nebraskans, he said.

“The courts, however, look forward to working with this legislative body and other interested parties to alleviate that shortage,” Heavican said.

The judiciary also has worked to ensure access to the courts for people with limited English language proficiency, he said. This effort included hiring two new interpreter coordinators and providing Spanish interpreters through video-conferencing for over 450 hearings last year.

“Our dedicated judges, support staff and probation employees are carrying out the Court’s long-term mission to do justice, resolve disputes, provide equal protection to all citizens and ensure due process of law in all 93 of Nebraska’s counties,” Heavican said.

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