By Tom McBrideNJJA Executive Director

Tom_blog_pic copyIn the past month there have been two significant program changes announced that affect Juvenile Justice involved youth. One program in Western Nebraska and the other in Eastern Nebraska.   While we appreciate the work that County Boards do so much in relation to Juvenile Justice Programs and specifically Alternatives to Detention, we raise our eyebrows in hesitance to the changes that have been announced.

First of all was the decision by the Scottsbluff County Officials to temporarily suspend the Youth Detention Program in Scottsbluff. It has been cited that because of an overflow population of adults in the jail and a low number of juveniles that they needed the room to expand the adult numbers to meet Jail Standards. We certainly appreciate the need to meet Jail Standards for the adult population but the move does come with significant impact to juveniles and their families. First of all as it was announced that this is a temporary adjustment we wonder what facets are in place to reduce the adult population and allow the Juvenile Program to restart. Our fear is that ‘temporary’ becomes something much less than temporary. With that youth who really do require secure detention are placed in less secure programs that do not meet theirs’s or the community’s need. For those youth who then are remanded to remain in a secure facility are shipped off to locales that might make it virtually impossible to retain ties to family and local programs. The Scottsbluff program has demonstrated over the years that they go far beyond just the secure holding of youth but have provided forward thinking and effective programing for the youth they served. Our hope as we watch this situation is that the problem is remedied quickly with the best interest of both adult and youth needs.

When you squeeze a balloon here, it pushes out somewhere else

Most recently the Lancaster County Board announced it would be closing the Staff Secure portion of the Lancaster County Youth Detention Facility. Staff secure offers a less stringent security measure for those youth who are not in need of a secure setting, but do have issues that would suggest they needed supervision to remain in a facility while receiving programming specific to them. We are sure the Lancaster Board adopted this decision after careful consideration. It was announced that these youth could be better served in community programing that addresses their individual need. While we agree with the concept of in-community programming for these youth our hope is the decision didn’t ultimately result from budget issues. While these youth met criteria for Staff Secure placement it might well mean that some or many of them are eventually placed in Emergency Shelter Care, or some other restrictive means of monitoring and programing that simply shifts the cost to the State.

Our position is that Juveniles need programs appropriate to their needs and that while we all must work under budget constraints, youth programs should not be interrupted or removed simply for that reason. Our fear is that this could be once again, youth taking a backseat to adult issues or budget concerns and reasoned away by rhetoric. My intent here is to not point fingers or blame but to help recognize recent events. We have seen that Cost- shifting has never worked to the benefit of youth programs and both these and future changes to juvenile programs need to be closely monitored for unintended consequences. The old analogy is true, “When you squeeze a balloon here, it pushes out somewhere else”.