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Dramatic reform of juvenile justice takes shape in Legislature Tell North Platte what you think

Juvenile criminals would be rehabilitated at home, with help from probation officers, under a bill advancing in the state Legislature.

Lawmakers advanced LB 651, aiming to overhaul Nebraska’s juvenile justice system.

The bill would transfer responsibility for the state’s roughly 3,000 juvenile offenders from the Department of Health and Human Services to the Office of Probation Administration.

The change is intended to keep juvenile offenders in the home and out of county or state run detention centers, with the exception of serious cases.

State-run Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers in Kearney, Geneva and Hastings would be reserved only for those more serious offenders.

The bill was introduced by Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha.

Ashford said families could help to rehabilitate a child if given the proper support.

The bill aims to provide that support through funding for community-based juvenile services programs.

Ashford said these “intensive therapy” programs would be available to families up to four months after a youth returns from a rehabilitation center.

The bill would appropriate $10 million a year in state funds for grants to counties that develop programs for juveniles according to criteria laid out in the bill.

The amount of funds distributed to each county would depend on a formula that considers several factors, including the number of juvenile offenders in that area.

The bill would also shift about $40 million from the Department of Health and Human Services to the Office of Probation Administration for 100 additional probation officers to be dispersed throughout the state.

Sen. Burke Harr of Omaha, who supports the bill, expressed concern that the shift would essentially turn probation officers into social workers responsible for overseeing the rehabilitation of juvenile offenders.

“A probation officer’s role is not the same as a social worker’s,” he said.

He said that because probation officers work for the court, they have less authority to challenge the decisions of juvenile court judges.

Ashford responded by saying that probation officers come from diverse backgrounds -- criminal justice, social work, psychology -- and that additional training would be provided to prepare them for the transition.

Sen. Kathy Campbell of Lincoln asked about the expected caseload level the probation officers would have.

She warned that if the caseloads were too great, the officers would have difficulty providing the needed level of support to parents who would retain custody of their children under the bill.

Ashford responded that he did not know exactly how large the caseloads would be but that efforts would be made to keep them as light as possible.

“We’re not going to save every kid, but we’re going to save a lot more kids,” Ashford said in his closing remarks on the bill.

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The North Platte Bulletin - Published 5/21/2013
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