Juvenile Indigent Defense Delivery System


Nebraska provides counsel to indigent youth through a county-based system that includes elected public defenders, contract public defenders, and assigned counsel. Counties with populations in excess of 100,000 are required to have elected public defenders. Neb. Rev. Stat. Ann.  § 23-3401(1). Counties with populations below 35,000 may choose to have appointed public defenders. Neb. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 23-3404(1). The judges in one or more judicial districts make the determination of whether a public defender is needed and that “determination shall be certified to the Governor.” Neb. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 29-3910. Youth who are deemed indigent are entitled to counsel by statute. Neb. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 29-3915(3). If the attorney appointed by the court has a conflict, another attorney shall be appointed by the court. Neb. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 29-3904(1).

Counties fund most of the costs of indigent defense, although the Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy provides money and technical assistance to help counties provide effective counsel for indigent youth. Neb. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 29-3923.

The Nebraska Commission on Public Advocacy is responsible for providing services and resources for indigent defense. Neb. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 29-3923. Non-binding standards issued by the Nebraska Supreme Court Commission on Children in the Courts provide that all juvenile indigent defense attorneys should complete a minimum of 16 hours of relevant training every two years.

Court Rules

In addition to statutes and case law, juvenile court proceedings are governed by court rules. In Nebraska, those are the Uniform Separate Rules for Juvenile Court Practice and Procedure. Neb. Ct. R. §§ 6-1701 to 6-1706.

Right to Counsel

Beyond the right to counsel in juvenile court guaranteed by the Due Process Clause of the United States Constitution and In re Gault, 387 U.S. 1 (1967), states often have state constitution or statutory provisions further expanding upon or delineating that right.

In Nebraska, youth in juvenile court have the right to counsel in “all proceedings before the juvenile court.” Neb. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 43-272(1). A youth must be informed of their right to counsel, using “developmentally appropriate language.” Neb. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 43-248.01. In larger counties with a population of more than 150,000 inhabitants, a youth who appears in court without an attorney will have one appointed. Neb. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 43-272(1)(b). In smaller counties with a population of fewer than 150,000 inhabitants, a youth who appears without an attorney will be advised of their right to counsel. If the court determines that the youth and parent or guardian would like, but cannot afford, an attorney, the court shall appoint one “for all proceedings before the juvenile court.” Neb. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 43-272(1). The right to counsel specifically applies to:

In addition, in parole violation hearings, a youth has a right to “be represented by legal counsel at the expense of the Department of Health and Human Services unless retained legal counsel is available to the juvenile.” Neb. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 43-421(5).

Determination of Indigence

Nebraska has no presumption of indigence in juvenile court proceedings. “[W]hen neither the minor nor [their] parent or guardian is able to afford counsel,” the youth is entitled to court appointed counsel. Neb. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 29-3915(3). Generally, to determine indigence, the court must make a “reasonable inquiry” based on an affidavit filed by the person seeking appointment. Neb. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 29-3902. Prior to a “defendant’s initial court appearance” the public defender shall make the indigence determination. Neb. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 29-3915(3).  Indigence is defined as being unable to “retain legal counsel without prejudicing one’s financial ability to provide economic necessities for one’s self or one’s family.” Neb. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 29-3901(3).

If the court appoints an attorney for a youth and later determines that the parent can afford to pay, the court will order the parent or youth to pay the cost, and refusal to pay may lead to contempt actions. Neb. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 43-272(1a).

Waiver of Counsel

The court may accept an affirmative waiver of counsel from a youth defendant as long as it is in person, recorded, signed by the youth, and the decision is made “intelligently, voluntarily, and understandingly” Neb. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 43-3102(2). Case law requires a totality of the circumstances inquiry to determine whether a waiver is intelligent, voluntary, and understood. In re Dalton S., 273 Neb. 504, 514 (2007). If the child is already represented by an attorney, the child must consult with the attorney before waiving their right to counsel. Neb. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 43-3102(3). Youth cannot waive their right to counsel at a detention hearing, when being transferred to a criminal court, or if they are under the age of 14. Neb. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 43-3102(5).

Detention Provisions 

When and how the court may decide to detain a child or otherwise place restrictions on the child’s freedom is defined by statute and court rules. Pursuant to Nebraska state law, a child shall not be securely detained unless it is a “matter of immediate and urgent necessity” for:

Provisions related to the detention of youth are also found in Neb. Rev. Stat. Ann. §§ 43-248 to 251.01, 43-253 to 257, 43-259 to 260.01, 43-271, 43-423.

The U.S. Constitution and Supreme Court case law are also sources of due process rights beyond local and state statutes and provisions. NJDC’s Detention Page provides more information about detaining youth.

Post-Disposition Advocacy

The legal needs of children in the delinquency system rarely end at disposition, and states vary in the way they provide a right to representation on these post-disposition issues. Nebraska statutes list two post-disposition proceedings at which youth have a right to counsel.

In Nebraska, youth have a right to counsel at the following post-disposition proceedings:

NJDC’s Post-Disposition Page has more information on this topic from a national perspective.

Ages of Juvenile Court Jurisdiction

The age of a youth who comes within the jurisdiction of the state’s juvenile courts is defined by state law. In Nebraska:

Youth in Adult Court

Despite the existence of juvenile courts, many youth are still tried as adults. In Nebraska, the prosecutor has discretion in determining whether to charge a youth in adult court. Neb. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 43-276(1). The prosecutor is required to consider a variety of circumstances in making this determination. Neb. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 43-276(1). To be eligible for arraignment in adult court, the youth must have been 14 years old or older when the alleged offense occurred, and must be accused of a felony or traffic offense. Neb. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 29-1816(1)(a)(ii)-(iii).


NJDC conducts statewide assessments of access to counsel and the quality of juvenile defense representation in delinquency proceedings around the country. These assessments provide a state with baseline information about the nature and efficacy of its juvenile indigent defense structures, highlight the strengths and weaknesses of the indigent juvenile defense system, and provide tailored recommendations that address each state’s distinctive characteristics to help decision-makers focus on key trouble spots and highlight best practices. The NJDC State Assessment Page provides more information about state assessments.

The Nebraska Assessment was completed in 2009

Current through June 2018.