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Objective evaluation of policy after it has been implemented is vital. Only through critical analysis can lawmakers determine whether or not a policy is having its intended outcome and make any needed modifications. The Legislative Performance Audit Committee, which I chair, has released a performance audit in response to requests from legislators to examine the impact of the juvenile justice reforms adopted in 2013 and 2014 on the operation of the male youth facility in Kearney known as YRTC-K.
In 2013 the Nebraska Legislature passed a sweeping reform of the juvenile justice system. Prior to the passage of LB 561 in 2013, youth offenders were managed in a more punitive, custody-based model. At the center of that system were the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Centers. Originally known as the Nebraska State Reform School for Juvenile Offenders, two YRTCs are operated by the Department of Health and Human Services: a male facility in Kearney and a female facility in Geneva. A driving force behind the reform measures in 2013 was a belief that courts had become over-reliant on an incarceration-like system for youth offenders rather than rehabilitation and treatment, which meant unnecessarily commitment of juveniles to the YRTCs.
The 2013 policy adopted a rehabilitative approach to youth who had committed crimes. Rather than punishment by commitment to a state facility, juvenile courts would first utilize community based social services, approaching the offense with local treatment rather than incarceration. Commitment to the YRTC would be the last resort for high risk youth or those who do not improve after utilizing all available local resources. In 2014, LB 464 gave additional discretion to prosecutors and the courts when pursuing charges in juvenile or adult court for youth offenders, expanding options for use of a treatment rather than a punitive approach to juvenile crime.
Specifically, the performance audit examined the demographics of youth committed to YRTC-K, the nature of youth violations at the facility, and the staffing levels during the period directly prior to and immediately following the implementation of the juvenile justice reforms. The purpose was to evaluate any potential impact of the legislative action on the population at YRTC-K.
Among the wealth of information in the 86-page report, two findings stand out and warrant further evaluation. First, youth from rural counties are disproportionately represented in the YRTC-K population. In fact, from 2014-2017, rural youth at YRTC-K are 10-15% higher than the percentage of rural youth statewide.
The disparity warrants further information about the rural offenders at YRTC-K, including their offense level and participation in rehabilitation programs before institutional commitment. The legislative changes were successful in decreasing the total number of youths committed to YRTC-K, as well as the average daily population, by utilizing local treatment resources first. However, if rural youth do not have adequate access to treatment and rehabilitation programs in their communities because the services do not exist, commitment to YRTC-K may be the only option, rather than a last resort.
Second, the performance audit revealed an extremely unequal distribution of violent offenses committed by young men at YRTC-K. The audit identified that 37% of the youth had no documented reports of misconduct, either violent or non-violent. Of those youth cited for a violent incident, 32% had only one incident, while another 42% had only between 2 and 5 incidents. However, a very small proportion of the population were responsible for most of the violent incidents, with 14% of those cited committing between 6 and 10 infractions and 12% committing 11 or more infractions. On the extreme, 7 individuals were responsible for more than 30 violent incidents each.
It is prudent for lawmakers to examine whether a single facility is the best option for housing a population of non-violent youth and youth with a mild record of infractions with a much smaller population of youth who exhibit consistent patterns of violent behavior during commitment. For the safety of youth and staff at the facility, identifying alternative strategies for dealing with the small population of youth responsible for the greatest violence may be beneficial.
The YRTC-K performance audit highlights the need for specific goals and identified metrics to be clarified during the adoption of legislation. Defining what the outcomes of any reform measure will be and how to measure their success or failure is a responsible approach to public policy.