Nebraska officials for years have worked to reduce the number of young people going into the court system. That important goal was the core of the state’s revamp of the juvenile justice system a decade ago. The latest proposal to further that aim is now before the Legislature, and it deserves passage into law.
Legislative Bill 568, sponsored by State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln, would remove truancy as a status offense that requires a youth’s automatic appearance in juvenile court. Instead, the state would mandate diversion programs to address root causes of absenteeism, such as family problems or bullying. More than 80 Nebraska counties currently have such diversion programs for truants. LB 568 would boost funding for those programs and help the remaining counties set up such supports.
Keeping young people out of the court system to the extent possible serves the public interest. Truants appearing in juvenile court are usually 16 or younger — in other words, they’re children. Non-court alternatives to address their needs are an eminently better option. About 650 youths are found truant each year.
Nebraska lawmakers have regularly looked at the state’s truancy laws, making major and minor changes. Since 2010, the state has required school districts to report cases to a county attorney when a student has been absent at least 20 days per year, whether the absences are excused or unexcused.
It’s true that supporters and opponents of LB 568 share the same goal: doing what’s best for Nebraska children. Critics of Pansing Brooks’ bill say the current approach, mandating the court appearance, is appropriate because action by county attorneys provides a “hammer” that compels families to correct the problem. But in reality, that approach isn’t solving the problem. Experience demonstrates that a youth’s early entanglement with the court system often leads to long-term court involvement. Indeed, 70% percent of Nebraska youths who appear in juvenile court later enter the adult court system, Pansing Brooks said during floor debate. Addressing that troubling pattern and getting more youths on a positive track is best for Nebraska.
So, it makes sense to try a different approach. Pansing Brooks’ bill provides that vehicle. After all, the option to apply the county attorney’s “hammer” will remain. But LB 568 removes that option as the state’s first resort, using non-court approaches instead.
As Pansing Brooks notes, “Excessive truancy is most frequently coupled with problems going on in the home. We can better solve these problems more effectively without sending these cases through the courts.”
Here’s an additional, practical reason for Nebraska to step back from pushing young truants before a judge: School officials, here and nationwide, are voicing concern about a possible leap in truancy due to the pandemic. The 2020 numbers aren’t in, the Associated Press reports, “but soaring numbers of students who are failing classes or are chronically absent have experts fearing the worst.”