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Full day debate continued in the Legislature last week as we began discussing three prison reform bills that are aimed at reducing Nebraska’s prison overcrowding while trying to find lower-cost alternatives. This issue was brought to the forefront when Niko Jenkins was released from prison without treatment for mental health issues and went on a murder spree in Omaha. Hearings were held last summer by a special legislative investigative committee to find out what went wrong with our penal system that allowed this to happen. The result of these hearings brought several bills with LB 605 as the primary reform measure.
The underlying idea in LB 605 is that it begins to move nonviolent offenders toward probation and treatment of mental health issues rather than prison, and it increases penalties for some violent and sex offenses. Proponents hope these reforms reduce the prison population which are now at nearly 160 percent of capacity. The bill gives inmates incentives to apply for parole and then be subject to intense supervision and treatment for mental health or addiction issues they may have. Currently, many inmates serve their full sentences and leave without supervision or treatment. There is an expectation that these new reforms could reduce the number of offenders who repeat crimes and return to prison.
LB 605 was drafted in conjunction with the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments, which has helped about 20 other states reduce spending on corrections by utilizing lower-cost alternatives to incarceration, such as probation, drug courts and parole.
Opponents of the bill, the Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson, county prosecutors and Governor Pete Ricketts, did not like portions of the bill that would do away with mandatory minimum sentences for some criminals and accelerate the parole eligibility for others. Prosecutors pointed their dislike at a provision that would restore a state law requiring the minimum sentence for a serious felony to be no longer than one-third the length of the maximum sentence. That, they said, would make someone sentenced to 50 years in prison eligible for parole in about 8.5 years if the inmate didn’t lose any good time. Some said that the one-third rule would do little to reduce prison overcrowding, and instead, the Legislature needs to take another look at building new prisons. Even though someone is eligible for parole does not mean they will be paroled. What this attempts to do is give Corrections notice that this person is eligible for parole and he should be scheduled for any treatment programs that are needed.
Defenders of the one-third rule said that such sentences give an incentive to inmates to behave and take advantage of educational and rehabilitation programs so they can be released on parole supervision.
Senators will meet with prosecutors to find a compromise on the one-third rule before the bill comes up for second round of debate. The bill advanced to the next stage of debate with an agreement from Judiciary Committee members to continue negotiating a compromise on portions of the bill that opponents do not support.
A second prison reform bill, LB 598 was forwarded to second round of consideration. It would require the Department of Correctional Services to adopt rules on how segregation of prisoners would be conducted and for which reasons. About 300 inmates are in segregated housing at this time. Inmates held in segregation need intense treatment and should not be released straight from segregated housing and into public life.
The bill also creates the Office of Inspector General of the Nebraska Correctional System. It would set a time frame for ensuring parole board independence by moving primary responsibility for the administration of parole out of the Department of Correctional Services. This position would monitor all prison activities to make sure they are complying with all the rules and regulations they are required to follow.
LB 173 is the third of the reform bills. LB 173 makes changes to the state’s habitual criminal statute so that it applies only to violent offenses. The new definition includes the offenses listed as violent offenses for purposes of the Correctional System Overcrowding Emergency Act. The definition also includes sexual assault of a child and motor vehicle homicide. There is some question as to whether too many offenses were removed from the habitual offender list used in that determination.
LB 173 would also eliminate the mandatory minimum sentence for a habitual criminal enhancement. The minimum penalty would be 10 years, instead of a 10 or 26 year mandatory minimum. This measure was also forwarded to the second stage of consideration.
Prison reform is very complex legislation and I do depend on the Judiciary Committee members for their recommendations as they have spent a large amount of time researching this over the last year. Approaching the problem from this direction I feel is a better solution than building a new prison. New prisons are expensive and do not address the underlying problem of lack of treatment as the cure for recidivism.