The Sentinel-Record

Quality of justice

- Lincoln Journal Star


Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike Heavican was direct with state senators when he delivered his State of the Judiciary address last week: Nebraska needs to address significan­t challenges presented by mental health issues of those who have been caught up in the state’s judicial system.

The Legislatur­e has, of late, increased mental health provider reimbursem­ent rates. But, Heavican said, the need for providers — particular­ly 24-hour care facilities for the mentally ill — remains unfilled. That makes county jails the default 24-hour facilities, to the benefit of neither the jails or those confined there.

Even more critical, Heavican said, is the long-standing problem of mental health competency determinat­ions for criminal defendants to stand trial.

“The Lincoln Regional Center currently has a six-month backlog to perform such evaluation­s,” Heavican said. “This problem has festered for years and needs a resource supplement.”

Heavican didn’t specify a dollar amount for that supplement. But, no matter its size, it would be a relatively small investment of state funds that would go far to end the evaluation backlog and allow the court system to function more fairly and faster. It should be provided for in the biennial budget that the Legislatur­e is required to approve this year.

That kind of investment can pay off for taxpayers, as has been the case in the state’s probation system. …

The use of probation rather than incarcerat­ion also saves the state thousands for each convicted person in the system. Specifical­ly, Heavican said, the average cost of supervisio­n for an adult on probation is $5,500 per year compared with $42,000 for incarcerat­ion. With some 14,000 adults on probation in Nebraska every day, that’s a lot of cash saved.

To that end, Heavican suggested adding a veterans treatment court in Sarpy County and a drug court in Platte County and noted that the mental health court in Sarpy County and DUI court in Lancaster County experience­d their first graduation­s during the past year.

Those alternativ­e courts have proven to be effective in addressing the behavior that has brought people into the system, getting them treatment and programmin­g and keeping them out of the state’s overcrowde­d correction­s system. They, as Heavican suggested, should be expanded wherever possible for the benefit of the courts, those in the system and the taxpayers.

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