A proposed bill in the Nebraska Legislature would give juveniles involved in the criminal justice system and their representatives more say in the court system.
Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha introduced LB1148, which would allow any involved party to have an opportunity to request a hearing to reconsider the treatment and care of a court-involved juvenile.
“Currently that process is not reviewable and people that represent the juveniles don’t have a say,” Vargas said.
LB1148 is awaiting its second round of debate, but Vargas said he expects it to move forward when the Legislature resumed its session on July 20.
This past year, the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee started to focus on the state’s youth rehabilitation treatment centers, called YRTCs. According to Vargas, there have been allegations that some juveniles are being treated unfairly and live in unhealthy conditions.
For example, last fall the Geneva campus closed because of the poor living conditions for the girls. All 24 girls who were receiving treatment were transferred to the all-boy YRTC in Kearney.
“We have started to see cases where there is a need for more information, oversight and balance in how we ensure that youth have due process and a way to navigate the system,” Vargas said.
Currently, juveniles, their parents, judges, attorneys and any other parties of interest have limited jurisdiction. This means they only have a say in court after the juvenile has been discharged from a YRTC. While a juvenile is receiving treatment at a YRTC, the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services is in charge of overseeing the treatment and well-being of the juvenile.
This bill would allow involved parties to call a hearing to make modifications or review the treatment juveniles receive at YRTCs. It would apply to all juveniles who are in YRTCs in Nebraska. Nebraska defines a juvenile as any person between the ages of 11 and 18 when they committed an offense.
The Department of Health and Human Services runs YRTCs in Kearney, Geneva, Hastings, Whitehall and Lincoln. YRTCs serve males and females, ages 14 through 18.
Vargas said allowing juveniles and their representatives to have more of a say will give juveniles a better chance at rehabilitation.
“It’s going to be really important for individuals that have been in this system for weeks, months and up to a year,” Vargas said.
The bill has overwhelming support, Vargas said. Senators voted 35-1 to advance the bill to select file, which is the second round of debate.
Vargas has introduced other legislative bills regarding youth rehabilitation treatment centers, but those bills only focused on improving the standards of YRTCs and did not have the support LB1148 has. LB1148 focuses more on the court process for the juveniles.
“It is the one that I think is probably the most important for juveniles because it allows them to have due process,” Vargas said.
In February, Christine Henningsen testified in support of LB1148 at a Judiciary Committee hearing. Henningsen works for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Center on Children, Families and the Law and is the director of Nebraska Youth Advocates.
Nebraska Youth Advocates provides training for juvenile defense attorneys across Nebraska and works with other groups on juvenile justice reform policy.
Henningsen said the bill would help provide a better situation for juveniles in YRTCs.
“Some of what caused LB1148 to come about was the situation that was created at our YRTC in Geneva, where it was revealed how bad the conditions were with relatively non-oversight from outside parties,” Henningsen said at the hearing.
In the Geneva situation, outside interested parties, such as the defense attorney and judge, were not allowed to ask questions about what was going on with the juvenile placed at the YRTC according to Henningsen.
LB1148 would require that the Department of Health and Human Services cooperate with the court, legal parties and other interested parties while the juvenile is placed in the custody of the state.
“This bill puts the cooperative arrangement into place,” Henningsen said.
Henningsen said cooperation between all parties involved with the treatment of juveniles will provide a better outcome for the youth and help avoid a repeat of what happened at Geneva.
“I don’t know how to avoid situations like that without having some additional oversight from all the parties that are involved with the cases,” Henningsen said.