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This past week, senators gave first-round approval to LB 268, which would change the maximum penalty for first-degree murder in Nebraska from death to life imprisonment. This year, a dozen senators have signed on as co-sponsors to the bill annually introduced by Senator Ernie Chambers. Senators voted 30-13 to advance LB 268, which is the number of votes necessary to override the Governor’s promised veto. I voted against the advancement of the bill because I am still in favor of the death penalty.
The Legislature gave LB 610 second-round approval this past week. LB 610 proposes to increase the gas tax by six cents over a four-year period. Twenty-seven senators voted in support of the advancement of the bill to Final Reading, fourteen senators voted against its advancement, while eight senators did not vote. Although the bill had sufficient votes to advance, it may not have enough votes if a filibuster is attempted on final reading or to override an expected veto by the Governor.
Three bills dealing with prison reform were given first-round approval this past week, but not without a pledge to work with state and county prosecutors. Concerns from prosecutors focus on such issues as indeterminate sentencing, minimum sentences, habitual criminal statutes, and presumption of probation.
LB 605, the principal bill in the prison reform package, seeks to ease prison overcrowding and to hold offenders accountable with supervision and treatment. Our state’s prisons are currently at 159% of their design capacity. The legislation would use probation to hold people convicted of low-level offenses accountable, require misdemeanor sentences to be served in jail rather than prison, and update Nebraska’s property offense penalties to account for inflation. If the policy framework contained in LB 605 that structures certain felony sentences to be followed by post-release supervision is implemented effectively, it is projected to substantially reduce the number of inmates that jam-out of prison (released without any supervision). LB 605 also seeks to improve parole supervision through the adoption of a risk assessment tool and other evidence-based practices and would respond to major parole violations with short periods of incarceration followed by supervision.
The policy framework contained in LB 605 resulted from the work of the Nebraska’s Justice Reinvestment Working Group, which included the leaders of the three branches of government, district court judges, county and defense attorneys, and law enforcement executives. The group worked closely with the Council of State Governments Justice Center, which has helped a number of states reduce spending on corrections through lower-cost alternatives to prison for nonviolent offenders, such as probation, drug courts and parole, and greater focus on rehabilitation and mental health treatment for violent offenders.
LB 598 is aimed at reducing the use of segregation and improving treatment for mentally ill inmates. It would also create an Office of Inspector General of the Nebraska Correctional System. This bill was prioritized by the Performance Audit Committee, which I chair.
The last bill in the prison reform package, LB 173, dealt with habitual criminals and mandatory minimum sentences. This bill proposes to remove mandatory minimum sentences for several felonies and restricts the use of enhanced penalties for being a habitual criminal to violent crimes only. Currently, any three felonies, either violent or not, can be used in determining longer sentencing. Proponents of the bill state that mandatory sentences have failed to deter crime and can act as a disincentive for inmates to participate in rehabilitation programs. Opponents pointed out that this bill went further than what was recommended by the CSG Justice Center. The Nebraska Attorney General held a press conference to voice his concern that the legislation ignores the seriousness of several violent crimes, which could jeopardize public safety.
The prison reform bills have been introduced in an effort to relieve the overcrowding at our state prisons without having to spend millions of dollars on a new prison facility. Before the second round of debate, senators will work with the state attorney general’s office and county attorneys in an effort to reach a compromise on measures to reduce overcrowding without jeopardizing the safety of Nebraska’s residents.
If you have any comments on the prison reform measures or other issues before the Legislature, I encourage you to contact me. I can be reached at District #1, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and my telephone number is (402) 471-2733.
The Legislature is at the half-way mark of this 90-day session. This past week marked the priority bill designation deadline. Senators have the ability to designate one bill as their personal priority bill. Committees can designate two bills as committee priority bills and the Speaker of the Legislature is given the authority to designate up to 25 bills as speaker priority bills. After this point in the legislative session, generally only bills with priority status are debated by the Legislature.
I chose LB 106 as my priority bill. LB 106, the Livestock Operation Siting and Expansion Act, was recently advanced from the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee. It directs the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, with advice from experts representing the Nebraska Association of County Officials, livestock production agriculture and the University of Nebraska, to develop an assessment matrix for use by county officials when determining whether to approve an application for a livestock operation siting permit. Nebraska’s agricultural industry has not grown in the past two decades at rates comparable to our neighboring states. LB 106 would provide for consistent standards, based on factual, objective criteria to be used by local governing bodies when granting permits, thereby allowing for more predictability and uniformity in the process.
As chair of the Performance Audit Committee, we chose LB 538 and LB 598 as committee priority bills. LB 538, introduced by the Performance Audit Committee, creates a process for ongoing evaluation of Nebraska’s tax incentive programs, in order to give legislators information to draw clear conclusions about whether tax incentives are benefitting Nebraska’s economy and meeting program goals. LB 538 requires the Legislative Audit Office to conduct a performance audit of each tax incentive program at least every three years.
LB 598, introduced by Senator Paul Schumacher, addresses the use of segregation in our prisons. Rules would be developed to guide the level of confinement, conditions, behavior, and mental health status of inmates. The legislation contains recommendations from an interim study conducted by the Department of Correctional Services Special Investigative Committee of the Legislature, which incorporated results from an audit conducted by the Performance Audit Committee.
Other bills designated as priority bills by individual senators include:
LB 350, introduced and prioritized by Senator Lydia Brasch, reduces the valuation of agricultural land for purposes of property taxation from 75% to 65%. As of this time, LB 350 has failed to advance from the Revenue Committee.
Another bill that was prioritized but has not advanced from the Revenue Committee was LB 357, introduced by Senator Jim Smith. It proposes to reduce the individual and corporate income tax rates and increase the amount of funding to the Property Tax Credit program. The tax relief would be funded through transfers from the cash reserve and reductions in spending.
LB 586 prohibits discrimination based upon sexual orientation and gender identity. This bill was introduced by Senator Adam Morfeld and designated as a priority by Senator Patty Pansing Brooks.
LB 610 was introduced by Senator Jim Smith and prioritized by Senator Curt Friesen. It would increase the gas tax by 1.5 cents every year for four years, with revenue being used by cities, counties and the state for road and bridge projects.
LB 643 proposes to legalize marijuana for medical use. It was introduced and prioritized by Senator Tommy Garrett.
Among the bills designated as priorities by committees include:
LB 259, which as amended by committee amendments, would exempt the first $15,000 worth of personal property value for each personal property tax return. This bill was designated as a priority by the Revenue Committee. Although this will provide some property tax relief, many senators were disappointed that the committee did not offer a more comprehensive solution.
LB 472 was prioritized by the Health and Human Services Committee. It is Senator Kathy Campbell’s third attempt at Medicaid expansion, which was ruled optional for states after the Affordable Care Act was challenged in court.
If you have any comments on the bills that have been given priority status, I encourage you to contact me. I can be reached at District #1, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509. My telephone number is (402) 471-2733 and my email address is email@example.com.
The issues surrounding the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services is a top priority for the Legislature this year. Nebraska’s prison system is at 159% of capacity. State law allows the governor to declare an overcrowding emergency when a prison’s population goes over 140% of capacity. This level can also be a benchmark federal judges use to order new construction. The first-phase of a Nebraska Department of Correctional Services 2014 Master Plan report called for $261 million in construction costs to renovate and expand correctional facilities.
The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center came to Nebraska and worked over the interim with a group including the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. Their efforts focused on the development of justice reinvestment programs in an effort to avoid the need for new construction. They presented recommendations to reduce prison overcrowding and recidivism, by increasing the use of probation and drug courts for nonviolent offenders, as well as increased supervision of inmates after their release. It is estimated that their plan would cost approximately $33 million over the next several years but could avoid new construction costs.
An interim study (LR 424) was introduced during the 2014 legislative session in response to the 2013 murders committed by former inmate Nikko Jenkins. The committee was to examine the circumstances surrounding Jenkins’ incarceration and release, looking specifically at the use of segregation and the availability of mental health treatment.
The LR 424 committee’s work was broadened as it was revealed that the department had miscalculated sentences regarding mandatory minimums for hundreds of inmates and disregarded state Supreme Court rulings. Further scandals were revealed relating to a Re-entry Furlough Program, the release of prisoners before they were eligible for parole, a questionable Temporary Alternative Placement program, and the misuse of good time credits.
Multiple bills have been introduced in an effort to reduce prison overcrowding and in response to the problems that surfaced at the Department of Correctional Services. Four of them were heard before the Judiciary Committee on Friday of this past week.
LB 605 contains most of the recommendations from the CSG Justice Center. This legislation is designed to slow Nebraska’s prison population growth, ease prison overcrowding, contain corrections spending and reinvest a portion of savings into strategies that can reduce recidivism and increase public safety. The bill would ensure post-release supervision and update felony theft thresholds to reflect inflation for property crimes. LB 605 proposes to divert low-level offenders to probation rather than prison and expands access to probation’s Specialized Substance Abuse Supervision program.
LB 606 creates the position of Inspector General of the Nebraska Correctional System to oversee corrections. It also would require, not simply authorize, that a Governor declare a correctional system overcrowding emergency whenever the director certifies that the population is over 140% of design capacity. LB 592 seeks to improve access to mental health treatment for prisoners. LB 598 carries out a recommendation from the LR 424 committee, by requiring the department to institute a plan for the proper use of segregation.
Two bills were recently advanced from the Judiciary Committee. LB 172 would eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for a list of midlevel felonies. LB 173 would restrict habitual criminal status to those who committed two prior violent felonies. Currently habitual criminal status applies to both violent and nonviolent felonies.
The focus of other bills range from requiring electronic monitoring when violent offenders are released, to increasing access for participation in rehabilitation programs, to adjusting the good time policy. Legislation has also been introduced to appropriate $261 million to build a 1,100 bed prison.
This past week, the Appropriations Committee, of which I am a member, met with the newly appointed director of the Corrections Department. Director Frakes expressed a willingness to work with the legislative branch to fix the problems in his agency. Committee members stressed the need to be upfront with the Legislature on funding needs, in order to avoid situations like what we are currently experiencing.
Along with tax relief, issues stemming from prison overcrowding are sure to occupy much of the Legislature’s time this session. If you have any comments on legislation pertaining to correctional issues or on other topics before the Legislature, I encourage you to contact me. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. My telephone number is (402) 471-2733 and my mailing address is District #1, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509.