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Police, prosecutors push to change laws for juvenile detention in Nebraska

Published: Feb. 2, 2021 at 7:12 PM CST
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - Prosecutors and police are pushing lawmakers to change rules when it comes to detailing juvenile offenders.

Right now, the decision rests in the hands of a juvenile probation officer. Investigators want to know why they can’t have a seat at the table in front of a judge.

The owner of a car dealership on 72nd Street still can’t believe what he saw a year ago: a 12-year-old and 14-year-old breaking into his business and stealing his cars. Even after they were caught, they returned to do it again and again because the system kept releasing them. They never spent a night at the youth center.

Prosecutors, police, and now a state senator is trying to change that.

“You could tell it was the same people every time,” said Jose Correa, Salesman at Auto World. A year ago, the justice system shifted him from salesman into the voice for the voiceless. “I couldn’t believe the city would release them time and time again.”

Half the cars on his lot had been stolen, many of them damaged. His office busted into repeatedly, $20,000 in damage. And yet, the pre-teen suspects never spent a night in jail. Released to their parents only so they could strike again and again. Not just Auto World but a number of car dealers.

“At 12 and 14, I was still catching footballs in the yard,” says Correa.

While the car stealers and car smashers terrorized a number of business owners, another 12-year-old was also stealing cars last year. He even tried to rob Pastor John Ford with a knife.

“I had to stand my ground. I wasn’t giving them nothing,” says Pastor Ford.

As of July 2019, state lawmakers decided a 12-year-old can’t be detained. Police officers and prosecutors have taken their concerns to lawmakers and proposed a change.

Omaha Police Union’s Dan Martin says, “it gives discretion back to the judge with a 24-hour period to decide is this person a high risk to public safety.”

It would allow a juvenile county attorney a seat at the table along with a judge and defense to decide what to do with repeat offenders.

State Senator Suzanne Geist, says, “the heart behind the bill is to help law enforcement help these kids.”

Sen. Geist of Lincoln proposes LB537, spelling out the reasons when a juvenile could be detained. Even a 12-year-old if they pose a severe threat to others or the community.

Youth age 13 and older could be detained if probation doesn’t know where they are or they keep running away from after being arrested.

State Sen. Geist says, “it gives some sort of pause so a judge can review the case before a juvenile returns back to their home.”

The Lincoln Police Department’s union chief points out another example.

Brad Hulse, with Lincoln Police, says, “it’s not popular to lock up kids in facilities but there are some kids who do need this.”

In his view, the system provided way too many second chances for the teenager charged with killing investigator Mario Herrera.

“It’s a revolving door and there needs to be a stop to the revolving door,” says Hulse.

“We believe there should be a high bar to detain kids,” says Martin

In the past, state probation officials have argued it needs to do everything it can to not detain juveniles. Investigators and several victims believe they’ve gone too far.

“I think without a level of punishment that fits the crime, there’s no motivation to stop doing it. If you steal 20 cars and they send you back home with an ankle bracelet, that’s not very tough consequences,” says Correa.

A hearing before the judiciary committee on LB537 is scheduled for this Friday in Lincoln.

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