- Associated Press - Sunday, April 24, 2016

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska is taking steps to ensure juveniles who get into legal trouble have representation, but lack of resources will exclude children in most counties from a law that advocates call essential for juvenile justice reform.

Gov. Pete Ricketts approved a law this month that will automatically appoint attorneys for children in Sarpy, Lancaster and Douglas counties as a petition is filed in juvenile court. Currently juveniles in Nebraska are presented with the right to an attorney - and the ability to waive that right - at their first appearance in court.

Senators from rural districts successfully fought to exclude their counties from the new requirement, saying automatic appointments would burden counties already strapped for funding. Under the new law that will take effect in July, the only counties that will be affected are those with populations of 150,000 or more: Douglas, Lancaster and Sarpy counties.

Juvenile advocates say without early access to legal counsel, youth unknowingly make irrevocable mistakes early in the legal process that can affect future employment, education or result in unnecessary out-of-home placement.

In 2015, only 62 percent of Nebraska juvenile cases had legal representation, according to statistics from the Administrative Office of Probation. Many waived their rights, often misunderstanding the gravity of the situation or following the lead of youth in previous cases, said Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln, who sponsored the measure.

Margene Timm, a Lancaster County Public Defender, said parents sometimes encourage their children to waive the right to an attorney, admit guilt and move on in an effort to get the incident quickly concluded.

Kids need someone to ask the right questions and help them understand the legal effects of their decisions, Timm said.

But attorneys in rural areas said counties don’t have the resources to immediately fix that issue.

Amanda Speichert, a Lincoln County public defender in North Platte, said there would not be enough attorneys or money to pay them if the law had applied to Lincoln County.

“Part of it’s a funding issue,” Speichert said. “When they do supply funding through the Legislature our numbers just aren’t as big. And I honestly don’t know how you’d fix that.”

Speichert also said such a requirement would have doubled or tripled full caseloads. In some counties, public defenders like Speichert work on a part-time status and also maintain a private practice. Speichert estimated last year she still had about 300 adult criminal cases and 90 to 150 cases in juvenile court.

Speichert said she hopes increased diversion efforts and family services will help juveniles in counties where funding and legal counsel are more scarce.

Public defenders from the counties where the law will apply said it will have little effect on their offices, noting public defense overflows to a pool of private attorneys if caseloads get too high.

Additionally, Douglas County judges and court administrators have been automatically appointing attorneys for juveniles for at least a couple years, said Christine Henningsen, an attorney with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Center for Children, Families, and the Law. Practically speaking, it saves time and money in the long run because requesting an attorney later means rescheduling a hearing, Henningsen said.

Sarpy County public defender Dennis Marks called automatic appointments the right thing to do because it falls in line with nationwide policies and research emphasizing the importance of tailoring juvenile court proceedings to youth.

“It’s an exciting time to practice law in juvenile court, because there have been some recent Supreme Court cases that recognize juvenile age matters,” Marks said. “Nebraska does a good job of making sure juveniles get representation.”

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