Juvenile court standards advanced

Lawmakers gave first-round approval to a bill March 8 that would clarify the rights of individuals appearing in juvenile court.

LB894, introduced by Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, would require law enforcement to use developmentally appropriate language when explaining a juvenile’s right to counsel. It also would direct the state Supreme Court to establish professional standards by July 1, 2017 for all attorneys practicing in juvenile court.

Pansing Brooks said some judges use promises of leniency to encourage juveniles to waive their right to counsel and represent themselves. In cases where counsel is appointed for a juvenile, she said, the case often is assigned to a young, inexperienced attorney.

“A young person’s freedom should not be resting on the shoulders of people with little to no training in juvenile justice,” she said. “The least capable should not be appointed to serve the most vulnerable.”

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.

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 a 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.

A Judiciary Committee amendment, adopted 26-0, incorporated provisions of three additional bills, 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 amendment also included provisions of LB675, originally introduced by Omaha Sen. Bob Krist. The provisions would specify that a juvenile could be detained only if he or she is considered a threat to the physical safety of others or is at risk of failing to appear for court.

The provisions also would have allowed the secure detention of juveniles 12 or younger only if the juvenile is alleged to have committed a Class I or Class II felony.

Krist introduced an amendment, adopted 25-0, which removed the provisions of LB675 from the amended bill. He said rural communities with limited facilities would have difficulty implementing the provisions this year.

It is unconscionable that young people are being detained only due to a lack of appropriate facilities, Krist said, promising to reintroduce the bill in the 2017 legislative session.

Lawmakers advanced the bill to select file on a 31-0 vote.

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