Neb. chief justice touts pilot juvenile program

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LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — A new state program is showing early success in helping Nebraska juvenile offenders complete their probation by allowing them to serve it in their communities instead of in custody, the state Supreme Court's chief justice said Thursday.

Chief Justice Michael Heavican said about 80 percent of the 600 juveniles who have enrolled since the program began in July 1 have completed their probation successfully. That's higher than the state average, he said.

The program offers community-based treatment and keeps juveniles out of detention centers while they receive treatment and social services. Children do not become wards of the state, and the program focuses on school attendance and parental involvement.

"Significantly, children do not have to become wards of the state in order to receive services from the project," Heavican said in his annual State of the Judiciary address at the Capitol. "Thus, not only does this project provide individualized treatment for children, but it is designed to save money for the state and assist our juvenile courts with case management."

Lawmakers signed off on the project last year while overhauling the state's child welfare services. The pilot program was originally introduced by Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha for Douglas County, but it was later expanded to include Scottsbluff and North Platte in western Nebraska.

Lawmakers are planning to introduce a bill that would expand the program over a two-year period, until it covers juveniles throughout the state.

Krist said lawmakers designated $7 million for the Douglas County program. The Department of Health and Human Services initially predicted that the program would be under-funded, but Krist said the project is half done and has only used a third of its budget.

"Things are going very well," Krist said. "The money's always important, don't get me wrong. But more important than that is the success of the program itself. When you have an 80 percent success rate and a real drop in recidivism, that's a success story."

Heavican said court officials are also planning a transitional living center for foster care youth with more than $1 million in grant money. The facility in Hastings is set to open this summer. Several judges who preside around Sidney joined forces to create a housing unit where families can live independently while participating in substance abuse and mental health treatment. The first family enrolled in April, with joint funding from the state and federal government.

His speech focused heavily on juvenile services, technology needs and the challenges presented by a diverse group of non-English speakers who are drawn into court.

Heavican said the courts are seeing an increase in people who speak little or no English. Last year, the courts used interpreter services for 39 spoken languages and sign language for more than 20,000 hearings.

"These individuals come before our courts as victims, witnesses, defendants, and parents of juveniles," Heavican said. "Not only is it important that these individuals be heard, but it is equally important that judges, attorneys and jury members understand the testimony and arguments of non-English speakers so that justice can be served."

In the last six months, he said, courts in Sidney have relied on Czech interpreters for court proceedings. Interpreters who spoke the African languages of Dinka and Somali were summoned to proceedings in Grand Island, and Mandarin Chinese interpreters were sent to Valentine, Fremont, O'Neill and Kearney.

Interpreters skilled in K'iche, a Guatemalan language, were provided in Fremont, Hartington, Schuyler, Columbus, Madison and Grand Island.

Heavican said a study of language-access needs within the court will be finished later this year.

Nebraska courts are also turning to technology for interpreter services, such as video conferencing and telephones. Heavican said that since January 2010, the state has saved nearly $100,000 in travel and other costs for interpreters.

Heavican said the courts are also looking at ways to become more efficient through technology. He pointed to a plan to use video conferencing in trials and an electronic document filing system for the appellate courts.

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