Situated in Douglas County on the Nebraska side of the Nebraska/Iowa border, Omaha is the state’s largest city with a population of roughly 450,000. Around 2013, at a time when national juvenile arrest rates decreased, Douglas County remained nearly 50% higher than the national average.
Despite having ample resources (good public and private schools, corporations, universities, relatively low cost of living), Omaha has a history of disparity. At one point the poverty rate for African American youth was among the highest in the nation. There is a long track record of high incarceration rates for young people, with the majority of arrests for nonviolent crimes, and with disproportionate minority contact with the juvenile justice system. There have been community efforts to decrease the youth incarceration rate, but the work tended to be siloed. And, while rates decreased overall, the disparity between white and not-youth in the system continued to climb.
Collaborative funding from a mixture of public and private sources enabled Operation Youth Success (OYS) to work with local elected officials and stakeholders to assess the juvenile justice system. The group came together around the common goals of improving experiences young people have in the system and decreasing overall youth incarceration rates. Assessment results were used to inform efforts such as creating new services and building in alternative consequences so fewer youth enter the system, aiming towards large-scale outcome improvements. The group has a continuing focus on improving community engagement and includes community leaders with unique perspectives (e.g. a former police chief-turned nonprofit executive serving a low-income community). They hand-pick champions from various sectors and work towards engaging local families and young people in visioning and making decisions about how to improve their systems. They strive to be inclusive of residents rather than the traditional method of recruiting a few agencies, officials, and nonprofits to make all the decisions.
THE BRIGHT SPOT
Historically, representatives from Omaha neighborhoods that are disproportionately affected by poverty, unemployment, and resulting increased chance of youth incarceration, haven’t taken part in system reform work. Engagement with those with lived experiences with the juvenile justice system has led to an approach that is fundamentally different than what has gone on before: those most affected by the juvenile justice system are now a part of the decision-making process and share their direct experiences to shed light on improvements the county needs to focus on. The results are promising. There is a focus on upstream causes of youth entering the system in the first place, and an effort to eliminate the school-to-prison-pipeline through joint training with school resource officers on alternative interventions. Police report more positive relationships with schools and school-based arrests have decreased. A diversion program that provides young people additional extracurricular opportunities (clubs, sports teams, etc.) was formerly only accessible to students who had been ticketed by a law officer at school; now, it’s available to students before law enforcement gets involved.
If the initiative can withstand the early growth phase, Omaha community members agree that there is a lot of opportunity for what the future holds for their community and juvenile justice system, in particular. In terms of community engagement, they’re working to improve the process, asking questions like: What does consensus look like? What does governance look like in these groups? How do you balance ideas and perspectives from a wide range of people?
Additionally, the judicial court bench will change within the next few years, due to both natural turnover and expansion. Incoming judges will provide new leadership, which will require more relationship-building, training and perspective. There is an ongoing focus on reversing the Disproportionate Minority Contact (DMC) with the system, in fact Douglas County recently received a federal grant to specifically address the DMC issue, which enabled them to hire a DMC coordinator. There are also plans to build new juvenile justice facility and implement a programmatic philosophy that incorporates trauma-informed approaches and family experience.