Ex-police chief calls for juvenile justice reform

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In our continuing look at the very real and critical issue of disparities in who gets incarcerated and who gets treatment or sent home in a 911 call to police for intervention with a youth, we were intrigued by an article posted today in The Daily NonPareil, Council Bluffs, Iowa. The interface between law enforcement and a young person with a mental health challenge can alter a life path in an instance. Here is one ex-police chief's assessment of the challenge as it relates to race. Imagine adding on the challenge of a mental health disorder...

By Leslie Reed, World-Herald News Service
Former Omaha Police Chief Thomas Warren called for reform of the state's juvenile justice system in response to a new study that found widespread racial disparities in how cases are handled.

"It's obvious there's gross disparities and over-representation of minorities in the juvenile justice system, as demonstrated by this report," Warren, now president of the Urban League of Nebraska, said Wednesday.

University of Nebraska at Omaha researchers, who conducted the federally mandated study on behalf of the Nebraska Crime Commission, said they found a clear pattern: Black, Hispanic and Native American youths in Nebraska are more likely to be in the criminal justice system.

Not only are they more likely to be arrested, they also are more likely to be prosecuted and sent to jail.

Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine said the study's findings were troubling and warrant further investigation about why the statistical disparities occur. His prosecutors do not consider race when they make charging decisions, he said.

"Obviously race or racism should play no part in any function of the criminal justice system in any way, shape or form," Kleine said.

Warren was in Houston, where he was attending a conference addressing racial disparity in juvenile justice and alternatives to detention.

He and Juvenile Court Judge Vernon Daniels are co-chairmen of a Douglas County committee that is studying juvenile detention alternatives in an effort to reduce the disparities.

Warren said the study highlights the need for officials to consider other options to keep minority youths out of jail.

He praised efforts in Douglas County to develop more facilities that rely on staff, rather than locked cell doors, to monitor youths accused of minor offenses.

Jail-like detention facilities should be reserved for youths whose behavior poses a public safety risk, he said.

Kleine noted that the disparities seem to occur in spite of safeguards built into the system, such as a judge who can move a case to juvenile court over a prosecutor's objections.

He said UNO researchers lacked data about the youths' prior records as well as their families and economic status.

That information could help explain some of the disparities. A youth with prior offenses is more likely to face more severe sanctions, for example.

Kleine also said a study is needed to determine if racial minorities are more frequently the victims of crime and what factors contribute to that trend.

Warren called for police officers to be judicious when confronted with cases giving them discretion. He said they should perhaps think twice before taking a first-time offender into custody on a charge like disorderly conduct or obstruction of justice.

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