Legislature moves to add juvenile court judges; sex trafficking penalties get hearing


February 23rd, 2017

Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks discusses sex trafficking penalties (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Lincoln, NE – Efforts to improve the juvenile justice system moved ahead, and tougher penalties for sex traffickers were advocated in the Nebraska Legislature Thursday.

In 2015, juvenile court judges in Omaha handled an average of 253 cases per judge. That’s twice the number handled by juvenile court judges in Lincoln, and leads to long waits for kids to have their cases handled, says Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha.

Krist introduced a bill to add one judge to the existing five in Douglas County, and the Judiciary Committee upped that recommendation to two. Krist’s bill drew support from Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers. Chambers said he had opposed similar bills in the past, in an attempt to pressure the court system to remove Judge Elizabeth Crnkovich, whom he accuses of bullying parents, intimidating juveniles, and treating lawyers inappropriately.

Crnkovich declined Thursday to respond to Chambers comments about her, but said he has never contacted her nor appeared in her court. Thursday, Chambers conceded his pressure tactic had failed, and had contributed to trapping youth in the court system.

“It was nothing but sheer stubbornness, bullheadedness, that caused me to look away from the serious consequences on the courts and the children caused by the path I was pursuing,” Chambers said.

Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne said he could support one more judge, but more structural change was needed before he could support two. Wayne, a lawyer who practices before the juvenile court, said the court is part of a school-to-prison pipeline that treats young people, especially racial minorities, too harshly.

He gave the example of two seventh grade girl cheerleaders who were referred to the court for fighting. By the time their cases came up, six months later, they were best friends again. But Wayne said they and their families still had to go through the system.

“We have to change the system before we start adding more judges, because I am afraid if we add two more judges, that gives prosecution more discretion to say ‘Now we have more judges, we can go ahead and send more kids through,’” Wayne said.

Adding just one judge would cost the state between $250,000 and $300,000 a year. Douglas County estimated startup costs as high as $1.4 million, including security and additional courtroom space, and ongoing costs of over $500,000 a year.

Columbus Sen. Paul Schumacher said the bill illustrated the tension between needed spending and proposed tax cuts at a time when the state faces a projected budget shortfall.

“We’re still in the daydream world of ‘We can somehow squeeze additional revenue out of the system and throw it off to tax relief’ for  basically our wealthiest income earners — or income getters I should say because a lot of that income is never earned, it’s just gotten — or our wealthiest property owners. And this bill is a nice little one to underscore the fact of compelling need for the expenditure,” Schumacher said.

Senators voted 26-18 for an amendment upping the increased number of judges from 1 to 2, with Krist promising to work on possibly delaying the second judge to give Douglas County more time to absorb the additional cost. They then voted 33-10 first round approval for the bill.

Thursday afternoon, the Judiciary Committee held a public hearing on Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks’ proposal to increase penalties for human trafficking. Pansing Brooks complained current penalties are too weak for crimes including trafficking a minor with threat of force.

“Can you imagine that – somebody trafficking a minor being penalized with probation? When you consider the horrors of this crime, probation is nothing more than a slap on the wrist,” Pansing Brooks said.

Pansing Brooks’ bill would impose a minimum 20 years in prison for that crime, and a maximum of life. It would also try to focus on the customers of people who were being trafficked, by subjecting them to between 1 and 50 years in prison.

The bill was supported by a series of people who testified to having been trafficked themselves or working with victims of trafficking. Among them was Sakura Yodogawa-Campbell, a crime victim advocate for Sarpy County and a survivor of sex trafficking. She described a relationship that degenerated from being controlled and beaten to being forced to have sex with others.

“It is easy to categorize my experience as domestic violence and for many years I did. But he crossed the line from being my abuser to being my trafficker when he benefitted from my victimization. When the only way I could pay my rent was to turn tricks. He took my body, he took my voice. He knew what he was doing. My only choice was about survival,” Yodogawa-Campbell said. “Our current laws do not do enough to protect victims and hold offenders accountable. By maximizing the penalties for offenders, the perpetrators, we send a clear message to victims that we see you and we hear you.”

Anne Boatright, a nurse who has worked with sex trafficking victims, told of the anguished decisions one faced.

“I will never forget working with a patient faced with the decision to try and get out of her situation or not — her pimp calling her phone every hour — her crying and looking at me and saying ‘I have to go back. If I don’t go back, he will kill me. I have to go back,’” Boatright said. “Those words echo in my head today as I sit before you here with hope that we can take decisive action to hold offenders accountable and change victims lives for the better.”

The only person to testify against the bill was Spike Eickholt, representing the Nebraska Criminal Defense Attorneys Association. Eickholt said the proposed penalties were so severe defendants who were innocent might plead guilty to escape the most severe possibilities. And he said they were disproportionate.

“Although everyone seems to agree this is a horrible crime, this becomes, if you will, a watermark for other later offenses,” Eickholt said. “One of the proposed offenses is a 1B felony. That’s 20 to life. That is more serious than existing homicide offenses. That’s more serious than manslaughter. It’s more serious than motor vehicle homicide. We would argue that raising that proportional bar is bad policy.”

The committee took no immediate action on the bill.

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