The Cost of Juvenile Justice: Overhauling the System


Tri-City officials worry changes to the juvenile justice system in Nebraska could mean more costs for counties.

LB 561 passed in 2013, changing the way the state deals with juvenile delinquents.

It came with $14.5 million for new services and grants. State officials said it will help with rehabilitation and family participation.

"We're just starting to really understand how things are going to work," said Hall County Attorney Mark Young.

Young said, when it comes to the changes made by LB 561, his office is, at times, flying blind.

The bill ordered minors in the court system to be moved from the responsibility of the Department of Health and Human Services to the Department of Probation.

"HHS had a legal duty and a legal responsibility to pay for medical care, prescriptions and could consent to treatment,” said Young. “There's still a very big issue about how far Probation will go on doing any of that and that's a cause for real concern."

State lawmakers hope to keep youth offenders at home instead of in detention centers, but Young sees another problem.

"It is very difficult to find services, and some of the services I think everybody would agree would be a good idea, we just don't have and as a local community we can't afford," he said.

"Over the past nine months that's what we've been building and we have seen an increase in the services that we have available," said Joseph Budnick, chief probation officer for District 10.

Budnick's staff has doubled since the passing of LB 561.

The probation budget for District 10, which includes Adams, Webster, Franklin, Harlan, Kearney and Phelps Counties, has grown too. Budnick said funds formally used by DHHS in the old Office of Juvenile Services are now funding his department.

"We have not had any service that a youth needs that we have not been able to financially accommodate," he said.

But, Budnick said there's confusion at his department as well.

Before, kids in the court system became wards of the state. That’s not the case under Probation, where they can't make decisions about a minor's treatment.

"We're still working with the parents and their guardians to make the decisions and appropriate placements for our youth to receive the services that they need," said Budnick.

Young said, until a judge makes his final ruling, the money to pay for those services still comes from the counties.

"Although there is a provision in the law unfortunately that says that the county can still be looked to for payment if there's no other payment forthcoming; and that's something I’m very concerned about and, as an office, we're trying to watch," he said.

The Nebraska Juvenile Justice Association admits this transition hasn't been without some bumps. They're working to clarify some questions that may come up in this upcoming legislative session.

Where do those supporting and critical of these changes go from here? Tune in to NTV on Wednesday for the final installment of this juvenile justice special report.