Nebraska has an important opportunity this year to tackle three serious juvenile issues. The state has an encouraging chance for progress, if Nebraska’s leaders show the vision and will to take needed action.
How bad are the three problems? Consider these facts.
>> Incarceration and detention. While many other states have made significant progress in reducing their rates of incarceration of juveniles, Nebraska has gone in the other direction. The state now has the third-highest rate in the nation for incarceration of young offenders.
From 1997 to 2010, the nation’s juvenile incarceration rate fell from 356 per 100,000 population to 225. In Iowa, it declined from 308 to 227; in Kansas, from 380 to 264. Not so in Nebraska: The state’s rate climbed from 351 to 378.
In addition, there are major problems with Nebraska’s detention centers for state wards who are removed from their homes for juvenile delinquency. The centers are housing nonviolent youths with violent ones.
From 2008 to 2011, the number of youth-on-youth assaults at the boys’ detention center in Kearney more than doubled, to a total of 472 annually. The facility’s assault rate per staff person exceeded that in the state correctional system.
>> Mental health treatment. In the days after the Von Maur murders in December 2007, Nebraska leaders said the time had come to strengthen mental health services for troubled juveniles.
Did leaders follow up with effective action? No. Since 2007, the state has done little. A legislative hearing last December at the State Capitol catalogued the troubling details.
Meanwhile, the tragedy of the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown, Conn., has underscored the need yet again for far greater action on this issue.
>> Sentencing for murders committed while a juvenile. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that states cannot automatically send such offenders away for life. Cases need to be judged individually, although life in prison could still be an option. Nebraska now needs to recast its state law to set what a minimum sentence will be for such offenders.
Proposals on all three of these issues are before the Legislature, and lawmakers need to scrutinize and debate them, then take action.
More mental health treatment options need to be made available for Nebraska’s troubled youth. It’s true that government agencies and private providers in some instances have been working on the issue, but those commendable efforts have been undercut by the size of the problem, woefully inadequate funding and a lack of strong, strategic coordination and guidance. The state needs to provide that funding and direction.
As for the state juvenile detention centers, it’s been proposed that one or both of them be closed and replaced with treatment and support services for nonviolent juveniles. That’s a major step, and it shouldn’t be decided without detailed scrutiny. But at a minimum, the wrongheaded policy of housing nonviolent youth with violent ones needs to end and treatment services be increased.
Exactly what to do with young killers is less clear but no less pressing.
The Supreme Court’s decision will have an impact on future criminals as well as the 27 inmates now serving life terms in Nebraska for involvement as juveniles with homicides.
The high court’s ruling is the latest in a quarter-century of decisions that have said children are different from adults and that young criminals should not necessarily face the same punishment as adults.
In fact, the court’s latest ruling said that given all of its earlier decisions, “We think appropriate occasions for sentencing juveniles to this harshest possible penalty will be uncommon. That is especially so because of the great difficulty ... of distinguishing at this early age between ‘the juvenile offender whose crime reflects unfortunate yet transient immaturity, and the rare juvenile offender whose crime reflects irreparable corruption.’ ”
But the justices laid down no guidelines for states to follow. Lawmakers have seen proposals ranging from 20 years to life (meaning those who get the minimum sentence could be eligible for parole in 10 years) to 60-to-life with no chance of parole for 60 years.
Murder is the most serious of crimes. Which means lawmakers must seek a balance between justice for the victims and their families and the possibility that a young killer could grow and change, then give Nebraska judges enough discretion to decide each case based on its unique factors.
State leaders often are good at identifying problems, but sometimes not so good at actually doing something about them. That has been the case on juvenile issues in Nebraska for too long.
This year, it’s time to seize the opportunity and put solutions in place.