LINCOLN — Nebraska should let juvenile court judges — not prosecutors — decide whether youthful offenders should be tried as children or adults, according to a juvenile justice consultant hired by the state.
Terry Lee, a child psychiatrist and faculty member at the University of Washington, made the recommendation as part of his ongoing evaluation of Nebraska’s juvenile justice system. He also advocated that Nebraska invest in community-based programs to treat most troubled youths rather than lock them up in state- or county-run detention centers.
“Implementing effective juvenile justice programs will have the largest human and social outcomes,” Lee wrote in a preliminary report provided to The World-Herald. “Utilizing cost-effective services will provide cost savings to Nebraska crime victims.”
Lee discussed his findings during a press conference Friday at the State Capitol. He also is expected to testify Thursday on a bill before the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee that proposes sweeping reform of Nebraska’s juvenile justice system.
Lee has a $47,000 contract with the Nebraska Office of Probation Administration to conduct the evaluation.
The Judiciary Committee is scheduled to discuss another bill Wednesday that would require all criminal cases involving minors to originate in juvenile court.
The state’s current system allows prosecutors to decide whether to charge all but the youngest juveniles as adults.
Under Legislative Bill 464, introduced by Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, nearly all misdemeanor and felony cases involving minors would have to be filed in juvenile court. Prosecutors could file motions to have individual cases transferred to adult court, leaving the decision to juvenile court judges.
“Transfers to the adult criminal system should be reserved for the most serious offenses,” Lee recommended. “The burden of proof should be on prosecutors.”
The Nebraska County Attorneys Association plans to testify against the bill.
A report released this week by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found Nebraska has one of the highest rates of locking up juveniles in the country. The trend in a majority of states has been to treat most juvenile offenders in less-restrictive settings, which advocates say helps reduce overall crime rates.
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