Nebraska’s chief Supreme Court justice is warning lawmakers that staff shortages in the state’s judiciary branch and untenable backlogs in the mental health evaluations of those charged with crimes need to be addressed.
Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Heavican said in his annual State of the Judiciary address Tuesday that at last count in July, 12% of judicial staff jobs were vacant.
“Many have retired, and some have been lured away by better-paying jobs in county or city governments or the private sector,” he said.
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Despite the Legislature’s recent approval of salary increases for about one-third of judicial branch staffers, courts have begun implementing “extraordinary measures” to fill those vacancies, Heavican said, including giving hiring and referral bonuses and retention benefits. The branch is also offering programs for more career advancement opportunities.
Heavican highlighted the court system’s probation services, noting that in the nearly 40 years that Nebraska’s probation system has been overseen by the Nebraska Supreme Court, it has transformed into an office that “actively case manages its clients,” providing job training, substance abuse and mental health treatment.
There are about 14,000 adults and 2,500 juveniles on probation in the state, he said, adding that the annual average cost of supervision of an adult on probation is about $5,500 compared with $42,000 for an adult in prison.
“If even a fraction of the 14,000 adult probationers were instead incarcerated, this body would need to build more than one new prison,” he said.
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The chief justice also called on lawmakers to address a shortage of access to 24-hour mental health facilities, which weighs heavily on law enforcement and the judicial branch.
“Unfortunately, county jails are the default 24-hour facility if such services are lacking,” he said.
Heavican also addressed “the ongoing and longstanding problem” of inadequate services to evaluate criminal defendants to determine if they are mentally fit enough to stand trial.
“The Lincoln Regional Center currently has a six-month backlog to perform such evaluations,” he said. “This problem has festered for years and needs a resource supplement.”