Requiring lawyers for every juvenile an unfunded mandate

Friday, March 25, 2016

I spoke on the floor against a bill, LB 894, which would have required every juvenile charged with a crime in the state of Nebraska to have an attorney appointed to him or her immediately. It is extremely important that each and every person who engages with the legal system has the representation he or she desires. My concern with this bill was that, as the law stands now, every juvenile facing charges in Nebraska is absolutely entitled to an attorney if they or the guardians request one, but LB 894 would change it from an option to a requirement.

Douglas, Sarpy, and Lancaster Counties all have Juvenile Courts, and currently Douglas County appoints an attorney to every juvenile justice case. This is a good policy for Douglas County, as the decision to spend those county dollars is made by county officials. The problem comes when this policy is extended to all of the counties, and creates an unfunded mandate: the state mandates that each county do something which will cost money from the county budget, but the state does not provide the counties with any additional funds to cover those new expenses.

It is because of scores of unfunded mandates that property taxes for landowners across the state have risen, as cities, counties, school districts, and others take on new programs the state requires of them each year, but they do not take on any new revenue as a result, leaving them with no choice but to raise taxes.

This is how the legislature can pass laws which have "no fiscal note" and keep the state budget balanced, while simply forcing smaller government entities to raise taxes instead of the state.

There are instances in which a young person in the juvenile justice system may not need an attorney, and the parents or guardians may decide against it, especially for very minor offenses for which the juvenile may complete a pre-trial diversion program if it is available in that county. LB 894 would take each of those cases, and add several billable hours from an attorney to the county's costs.

My colleagues and I struck a compromise on this bill, altering it to require only Douglas, Lancaster, and Sarpy Counties to appoint attorneys for all juveniles, and keeping the law unchanged for the rest of the state.

I always enjoy hearing from the Nebraskans I represent. Please feel free to contact my office with any questions or concerns that you might have. My email address is dhughes@leg.ne.gov and my phone number is (402) 471-2805.

You can read more about bills and other work of the Legislature at www.nebraskalegislature.gov, and you can click on the Live Video Streaming NET logo to watch sessions, hearings, and other Capitol events.

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