Nebraska Chief Justice Michael Heavican tells state lawmakers efforts to keep minor offenders on probation and out of prison have been working.
Heavican, during his State of the Judiciary address, offers a caution, though, saying efforts to provide treatment rather than incarceration to the mentally ill have hit a wall.
“We have stopped all efforts to expand problem-solving courts into the area of mental health courts however, because we have no extra resources,” Heavican tells the Unicameral.
Legislators approved LB 605, justice reinvestment, in 2015, an effort to reduce prison overcrowding that involved all three branches of government. The effort seeks to keep those convicted of lower-level felonies out of prison, primarily through probation. Nebraska incarcerates more than 5,000 inmates in its prison system. The state has more than 15,000 offenders on probation.
It also costs the state less to keep someone on probation rather than house them in prison. It costs approximately $38,000 annually to keep an inmate in prison. The cost of using so-called “problem-solving” courts to guide an inmate toward probation drops to below $3,000 a year.
Heavican says the courts would like to establish mental health courts throughout Nebraska, but not only lack the money, but in addition the judges necessary to staff the courts in urban Nebraska.
Heavican says the state court system is working to create more options for juvenile offenders, stating the courts understand more effort needs to be devoted to keep juveniles from eventually taking to crime as adults.
“This past year, we launched a special effort to address the lack of juvenile justice options available in greater Nebraska,” Heavican says. “Three priorities were established. One, more local foster care. Two, more in-home services. And, three, more alternatives to detention, including timely access to therapists and evaluations.”
Efforts are being undertaken by Nebraska courts to address the unique needs of the four Nebraska-based Native American tribes.
Heavican tells lawmakers Nebraska has been chosen by the National Center for State Courts to be one of six sites nationally to participate in a program to reach out to the tribes and address their specific needs.
“One, improve Native Americans’ public trust and confidence in the state and federal courts. Two, identify ways to address disparate treatment of Native Americans in the state-court system. Three, improve judicial awareness and training as to the special problems faced by Native American populations in Nebraska and, four, improve the state and federal courts’ confidence in and understanding of the tribal court system,” Heavican says.
Heavican says studies have shown that Native Americans face disparities when they enter the state court system.
AUDIO: Nebraska Chief Justice Michael Heavican delivers the State of the Judiciary address [32 minutes]