Juvenile justice, slag bills advance; rollback of prenatal care for illegal immigrants heard

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March 21, 2013 - 5:48pm

Judges, not prosecutors, would decide if children under 18 accused of crimes in Nebraska would be tried in adult or juvenile courts. And slag left over from steelmaking would no longer be treated as waste, under bills advancing in the Legislature. Meanwhile, a bill to roll back prenatal benefits for illegal immigrants seems unlikely to move.

The juvenile justice measure would change the way the system now works. Currently, prosecutors decide if juveniles under age 18 will be tried in adult or juvenile courts. In 2011, Voices for Children in Nebraska says, over 4,000 cases were filed, and fewer than one fifth were transferred to juvenile court. But 90 percent of the cases where youth were prosecuted as adults were misdemeanors.

Omaha Sen. Brad Ashford said Nebraska needs to change the way it handles juvenile cases. "This is now the time to reform our juvenile justice system to get in line with the rest of the country and help our kids," he said.

"I know Nebraskans deeply, deeply care about these cases and these children. They care deeply. But we have to provide them with a system that works. If we don’t, we will continue to limp along. We will continue to overincarcerate youth."

Ashford’s bill would require that cases against juveniles start out in juvenile court, or in counties that don’t have them, in county court, and would require prosecutors to convince a judge to move them to adult court.

Omaha Sen. Burke Harr says the Legislature should consider making a distinction between serious crimes and those involving being a minor in possession of alcohol, for example. "We don’t want a kid who’s accused of murder going through juvenile court, necessarily, if he’s 17 years old and commits a heinous crime. But at the same time, a 17 year old with an MIP? Maybe they need some help," he said.

Ashford said he would work with people who have suggestions between now and the next round of debate. Senators then voted 39-0 to give the bill first round approval.

On another subject, senators moved toward changing the way slag left over from steel production is treated. Currently, says John Kinter, environmental manager for Nucor Steel, slag is used like gravel in roads, as railroad ballast, and has the potential to be used in concrete. But in Nebraska, the Department of Environmental Quality decides requests to use it on a case-by-case basis.

Under a proposal by Sen. Jim Scheer of Norfolk, where Nucor employs about 950 people, slag will not be considered solid waste as long as it’s managed and not treated like a discarded product. Department of Environmental Quality Director Mike Linder says if slag were simply stockpiled and abandoned, it could be considered solid waste.

Scheer says the idea is to recognize the use of slag in the law, so it’s not subject to being treated as waste by a future regulator. "The concern is that at some point in time there may be a determination by someone that it would be an industrial waste. And it’s always been a product, so we are just simply defining it as a product so we don’t have to worry at some point in time with someone changing their individual mind," he said.Sen. Jim Scheer showed this sample of slag to his legislative colleagues.

No senator spoke against the bill, which got first round approval on a vote of 40-0.

And the Health and Human Services Committee held a public hearing on a proposal to roll back last year’s restoration of prenatal benefits for illegal immigrants who are pregnant and their unborn children. The rollback is sponsored by Fremont Sen. Charlie Janssen and supported by Gov. Dave Heineman.

Among those supporting it was Marty Brown of Nebraska Taxpayers for Freedom, who said it adds to other costs of having illegal immigrants in the state. "Nebraska is a free feeding tube for illegal aliens. I have made a detailed list of these costs in Nebraska for your review, and I’ll be sending out to thousands throughout Nebraska. By adding the cost of prenatal care, you add another burden to Nebraska citizen(s) and another example of government gone wild," Brown said.

Yazim Gamez opposed the bill, LB518. She said she is undocumented, but has applied to change her status under a program created by President Barack Obama for illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States as children. Holding her 4 year old daughter Yarianna, Gamez said prenatal care she got helped find an iron deficiency associated with premature deliveries, low birth weight, stillbirth and newborn deaths.

"This could have happened to my daughter. Thankfully, I had access to prenatal care. A simple, routine pregnancy test prevented this from happening. If LB518 is voted out of this committee, there will be other cases like mine, but this time, devastating results," she said.

The committee took no immediate action on the bill. But it has not been given priority status, and is not expected to advance.

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