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In the legislature this week several hours of debate were devoted to a proposal to change Nebraska’s mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines.
Mandatory minimum sentencing laws require judges to give fixed prison terms to persons convicted of specific crimes, most often drug offenses.
A bill introduced by Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers, would have eliminated the mandatory minimum sentences for Class IC and Class ID felonies.
Currently a person convicted of a Class IC felony is subject to a sentence ranging from five to 50 years in prison. Class IC felonies include robbery, use of a deadly weapon to commit a felony, and possession of certain amounts of illegal substances. Conviction for a Class ID felony, examples of which include possession of certain amounts of illegal substances and assault on a police officer or health care professional, carries a sentence of between three and 50 years.
Unlike some of the other bills the legislature has taken up this session that have consumed entire days with little to show, this bill prompted good debate.
Supporters of the legislation argued that inflexible sentencing laws are unfair, preventing judges from fitting the punishment to the individual and the circumstances of their offense. Further that they have resulted in significant prison overcrowding and increased costs to taxpayers. In addition, incarcerated individuals are more likely to behave badly because they are not eligible to have their sentences shortened for good behavior.
Opponents of the bill contended that removing sentencing discretion from judges actually ensures fairness because it results in greater consistency for individuals convicted of the same crime. Mandatory minimum sentences also serve as a deterrent to crime as individuals are more likely to consider the potential consequences of their actions. Finally, mandatory minimum sentences improve public safety as longer sentences keep criminals off the streets.
In the end, Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn offered an amendment to the bill eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for Class IC and ID drug offenses only, specifically for manufacturing between 28 and 139 grams of cocaine, heroin or methamphetamine with the intent to distribute.
The amendment was adopted on a vote of 29-9 and the bill then advanced to select file 25-22. It still faces two more rounds of voting plus surmounting a possible gubernatorial veto before it can become law.
I am personally in opposition to the bill. At the end of the day these individuals have been convicted of serious crimes and should bear the associated consequences. Judges continue to have a wide range of sentencing options that take into account the individual circumstances of the convicted offender.
March 9 was the deadline for senators and committees to identify their priority bills. Bills with priority status are generally scheduled for debate ahead of other bills. Each senator may select one priority bill, each committee may select two priority bills, and the Speaker may select up to 25 priority bills.
I designated LB 640, introduced by Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte, as my priority bill. The bill caps the property tax contribution for school funding at 60% and provides tax relief in equalized school districts by lowering the maximum levy from 1.05 to 1.00.
Four of my bills have been designated as priority bills. Three bills, LB 144 which changes valuation of agricultural and horticultural land for calculating state aid to schools, LB 161 changing provisions of the Nebraska Advantage Act, and LB 265 which provides for a minimum amount of state aid based on the number of students in a local school system were designated as priorities by other senators. The Transportation & Telecommunications Committee prioritized LB 339 which creates a Department of Transportation by merging the Department of Aeronautics into the Department of Roads. Additional bills may receive priority status as the Speaker priority bills have yet to be announced.
Please feel free to contact me and my staff about your legislative concerns or other issues you would like to discuss. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and our telephone number is 402-471-2630.