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Nebraska's chief justice says state needs more rural attorneys, language interpreters

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LINCOLN, Nebraska — Nebraska has a growing need for language interpreters in its courts and faces such a shortage of rural attorneys that more people are opting to represent themselves, the state's chief justice said Thursday.

The state has taken steps to address both problems, Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Heavican told lawmakers, but he said more work remains. Heavican said the state faces a "major challenge" in Nebraskans who serve as their own lawyers, because many are unfamiliar with the law and court procedures.

"One factor contributing to the increase in self-represented litigation in many areas of Nebraska is a lack of attorneys," Heavican said in his annual State of the Judiciary address.

Heavican praised lawmakers for their work on a student loan repayment program for attorneys who agree to work in under-served rural areas. The program was created through a prison overhaul law last year.

A Supreme Court committee on self-represented litigants has developed forms and instructions to help non-lawyers navigate the courts, Heavican said. He also pointed to a partnership that's looking at ways to help Nebraskans who represent themselves. The committee includes legal aid groups, law schools, public libraries and the Nebraska State Bar Association.

Sen. Les Seiler of Hastings, an attorney and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said the lawyer shortage is especially severe in the northwest corner of Nebraska. Seiler said he's noticed a large number of non-lawyers trying to represent themselves in divorces and legal disputes against their neighbors, with mixed results.

"It's very frustrating for the judges," Seiler said.

Heavican said Nebraska increasingly relies on interpreters for criminal defendants, victims, witnesses and other participants in court hearings.

PHOTO: Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Heavican delivers his annual State of the Judiciary message to lawmakers in Lincoln, Neb., Thursday, Jan. 29, 2015. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Heavican delivers his annual State of the Judiciary message to lawmakers in Lincoln, Neb., Thursday, Jan. 29, 2015. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

The state supplied interpreters in 46 different languages for 24,000 appointments last year, a 20 percent increase from the previous year, he said. Spanish interpreters are the most in demand, but court officials also requested language services for Arabic, Vietnamese, Somali, the African language Nuer and American Sign Language.

Heavican said the newest languages sought are Bengali and Telugu, spoken in India; Kirundi, which is used in central and southern Africa; and Sorani, a Kurdish dialect spoken in Iran and Iraq.

Lawmakers may address the issue this year. Gov. Pete Ricketts has recommended an additional $250,000 annually for interpreter services in his proposed budget.

Heavican also highlighted the state's recent work on juvenile justice and prison-sentencing reforms. Nebraska has roughly 1,000 fewer state wards today than in 2012, he said, while the number of service providers statewide has increased by more than 45 percent.

The state has seen a decrease in boys admitted to the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center in Kearney. Heavican said 175 boys were admitted last year, compared to 450 in 2011. About 50 girls were admitted to a similar facility in Geneva last year, compared to 140 in 2011.

"This significant reduction is a direct result of the efforts of our juvenile courts and probation staff, providing intervention and treatment services closer to home for young people and their families," Heavican said.

Heavican said the courts have identified two effective alternatives to prison sentences for some offenders, although they're not available in all parts of the state.

The first is problem-solving courts, which served more than 1,000 people last year. Nebraska has 16 such courts that focus on drug, young adult and driving-under-the-influence cases. If half of those who participated had gone to prison, Heavican said the state would have paid at least $15 million. The program focuses on education and employment, rather than incarceration.

The second program, Specialized Substance Abuse Supervision, puts drug offenders under intensive supervised probation while they receive treatment. Heavican said more than 90 percent of those who successfully finish the program do not reoffend.

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