Public weighs in on Nebraska prison reform debate

Opponents and proponents testified regarding a prison reform bill.
Opponents and proponents testified regarding a prison reform bill.(KOLN)
Published: Jan. 26, 2022 at 9:13 PM CST|Updated: Jan. 27, 2022 at 12:00 PM CST
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LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) - The public had a chance to weigh in on prison reform legislation for the first time this session, as the Judiciary Committee grapples with solving overcrowding problems.

LB 920, introduced by Senator Steve Lathrop, groups together more than a dozen recommendations from a working group that used data from a nine-month Crime and Justice Institute study.

Lathrop said it’s critical legislation be passed as soon as possible, as NDCS is currently at 146% of design capacity.

“We cannot build our way out of this,” Lathrop told the committee. “If we do nothing now and build a new prison, we will still be over capacity.”

He also said this conversation isn’t about parties or politics.

“This is not a left-wing exercise. This isn’t ‘we feel sorry for people in prison.’ This is about what direction the State is going to take with respect to corrections. Are we going to try and build 200 beds a year and assumingly staff them? Or, will we be able to identify those people who we want in prison and how long they need to remain in prison to effectively accomplish public safety?” Lathrop testified.

LB 920 has 35 sections with more than a dozen recommendations for prison reform.

Those include limiting the use of mandatory minimums and consecutive sentences, streamlining the parole process, creating a geriatric parole option, creating a group home for inmates out on parole, more problem-solving courts in the state, changing the charges and sentences for different types of burglaries, and more.

Many of these options received overwhelming support; from the working group who came up with them, to the members of the judiciary committee, to the proponents of the bill, especially when it came to increased programming.

The working group said the more programming there is inside prison walls, the more likely inmates are to be eligible for parole. In 2020, 27% of Nebraska inmates served their entire sentence with no supervision after release. Douglas County Public Defender Tom Riley said mandatory minimums are also decreasing parole rates.

“I thought we had a prison that was a department of corrections,” Riley said. “Well, let the Department of Corrections do the correcting instead of saying you have no chance for parole, you’re never going to get out until you’ve jammed out. That is very bad policy. The thing we should be looking at is are there people in prison right now that don’t belong there because they’re not eligible for parole because of the sentence that was imposed.”

It was also a consensus that more problem-solving courts need to be created throughout the state, like the drug and veterans courts that currently operate in Lancaster County and other more populated areas.

Greg Holloway with the Nebraska Veteran’s Council spoke about the impact he’s seen veterans courts have.

“My veteran that I sponsored at veterans court was looking at a long long time in jail because he told me selling drugs was easy money until he got caught,” Holloway said. “He went through veterans court and now he’s educated through the University, working a job he wants, and is married and very happy.”

The options that neither working group members nor legislators agreed upon were those related to sentencing reform.

One option would make the possession of less than an ounce of any controlled substance a misdemeanor instead of a felony.

Lancaster County Public Defender Joe Nigro testified in support.

“The most common charge in our prison system is possession, I believe. This would reduce the prison population and more importantly why are we treating a health problem as a felony?” Nigro said at the capitol.

Lincoln Senator Suzanne Geist took issue with this. She said it could lead to fewer people involved in drug court.

“You have to want treatment for treatment to work. So often having that felony is the impetus to get someone to change their life,” Geist said.

Both Nigro and Riley said they don’t believe sentence length has a direct impact on whether an individual chooses to commit crimes, especially those who deal with substance use disorders.

“I think, in general, we’ve taken the wrong approach in how we deal with it. I would so much rather we help these people in the community before they get in trouble,” Nigro said.

Another policy that didn’t get overwhelming support is changing the charges for burglaries. As written, LB 920 would create three classes of burglary: first, second and third degree. Second degree would be a burglary of a non-dwelling where individuals were home. Third degree burglary would be a burglary of a non-dwelling where nobody was home. Second and third degree burglaries would carry shorter sentences than burglaries do now.

“I think our business communities would be very upset to learn that people who victimize their stores after hours as long as nobody’s in it would serve 1.5-year sentences after good time,” Aaron Hansen, an Omaha Police Sergeant, said.

Hanson said the Omaha Police Officers Association doesn’t disagree with increasing rehabilitation inside prisons, but said the State should remain tough on crime. He also said building a new prison isn’t a bad idea and has support.

“People want to be safe,” Hanson said.

10/11 NOW will continue coverage of prison reform debate in the legislature. Next week, we expect to hear from stakeholders in NDCS in the Appropriations Committee regarding the potential building of a new $230 million prison.

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