Many issues get discussed at Nebraska’s State Capitol, often with the message that more money is needed. State funds are limited, though. Priorities have to be set.
Next year, one of those priorities should be funding for juvenile services. The Legislature and Governor’s Office need to be wide awake to addressing this need. A hearing at the Capitol last week before the Judiciary Committee showed why.
The hearing detailed how the two state detention centers for state wards who have been taken out of their homes for juvenile delinquency are putting nonviolent youths together with violent offenders. The centers are the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center in Kearney (for boys) and the one in Geneva (for girls).
The problem at the Kearney facility, which currently houses 449 boys between the ages of 12 and 18, is alarming. In 2011, the number of youth-on-youth assaults at the center totaled 472. That’s more than double the number from 2008.
Frequent assaults also are directed at the facility’s staff. In 2008, there were 22 such assaults on staff members. Last year, the number was 96. That assault rate per staff person exceeds that in the state correctional system.
The Kearney center was intended as a rehabilitation facility, and its director says around 80 percent of the youths are treatable. But these security problems are clouding that role. The state boosted the number of security personnel at the center this year as a stopgap way to deal with the situation.
One of the witnesses at the Judiciary Committee hearing last week was a young woman who is a former resident at the Geneva center. Her problems had been drinking and irresponsible behavior, she said. She praised how the staff emphasized treatment, and she said it helped her.
When asked about the facility’s shortcomings, she cited the frequent opportunities for girls to assault other girls if they so wish. The staff turnover at the Geneva center has been nearly 23 percent.
At the hearing, witness after witness, from a wide range of backgrounds, agreed on the same point, as did lawmakers: Nebraska needs to do a better job of providing alternatives to placing nonviolent juveniles at the Kearney and Geneva centers. To do that, more resources are needed for community-based services. That approach would allow more delinquent youths to stay in their communities at lower costs to state government.
It costs around $260 a day to house a juvenile at the Kearney center. The daily cost at a group home, in contrast, is around $65. The figures are from a study by Jeanette Moll, a Platte Institute policy analyst who testified at the hearing.
Such reforms in Texas have allowed that state to cut $117 million from its juvenile justice budget and close three detention centers. Some $45 million of the savings were then returned to the counties to provide community services.
The hearing showed there is striking agreement across ideological lines on this issue, with support from every direction for devoting more attention to preventive services for at-risk juveniles. The services run the gamut from school tutoring to full-scale mental health treatment.
In 2009, then-Omaha Police Chief Eric Buske told the Judiciary Committee that such “front-end” services would help greatly in Omaha. Thomas Warren, another former Omaha police chief who’s now CEO of the Urban League of Nebraska, made the same point. “More emphasis should be placed on prevention and intervention strategies,” Warren said.
Right now, judges across the state too often have few or no options other than to send these youths to the Kearney or Geneva facilities. The situation is especially difficult in rural counties.
Thomas Pristow, children and family services director for the Department of Health and Human Services, said he is working to shift existing funding toward preventive services as much as he can. He is working with private providers to improve things.
But given budgetary limitations, the ability to make major change is difficult. Which is why the Appropriations Committee, as well as Pristow’s superiors, need to place greater emphasis on funding these alternatives.
The state already has been taking steps. With an injection of state funding, new treatment options on the local level began in July on a pilot basis in North Platte and Scottsbluff/Gering, modeled after a successful program in Douglas County. The Nebraska Supreme Court’s Probation Administration has been working on this in collaboration with the state HHS, private providers and the courts.
Still, the problem exceeds the state’s current ability to address it. This issue needs to be a priority for the new Legislature. Otherwise, future hearings will likely be a rerun of what happened last week.