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NE Leg: Prison reform debate hinges on four proposed items

(KOLN)
Published: Mar. 30, 2022 at 11:34 PM CDT
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LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) - Nebraska state senators are debating for the first time as a full body on legislation that would bring prison reform to the state. LB920 is a collection of new policies that would make big changes to Nebraska’s corrections system.

That debate went well into the night Wednesday with hours of testimony from all sides.

It was introduced by Senator Steve Lathrop, who is the chair of the Judiciary Committee.

“We aren’t just in an overcrowding emergency, even if we built additional capacity and closed a dilapidated penitentiary, we will not be out of the overcrowding emergency,” Lathrop said. “We will not have addressed overcrowding we will have built additional capacity as we have tried to no avail.”

As of right now, the bill covers three broad categories, including alternatives to prison, like creating more problem-solving courts like DUI courts. It also covers sentencing changes that would discourage the use of mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent felons, as well as expanding programming and services for inmates for things like earning parole.

Much of Wednesday night’s debate was about an amendment that would shave off some items in the bill. That amendment was introduced by Lincoln Senator Suzanne Geist.

“I contend that instead of changing sentencing, changing penalties, that we focus at a time when we have money coming into the state, we focus on that, so we can help our inmates actually get better and what better means is you don’t return to prison,” Geist said.

The amendment would cut four of the proposed 21 items in the current bill. Those cuts include creating a geriatric parole mechanism for inmates 70 and older, modifying drug possession penalties and discouraging the use of mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent felonies.

In response to the amendment and only keeping the remaining 17 items in the bill, those who support LB920 said it’s not enough.

“Just because there are 17 of them that doesn’t make them a majority of the solution,” Lathrop said. “They represent like a 4% difference in our population trajectory if we added them all up, it doesn’t get it done.”

Many senators who testified in support of that amendment, also pointed to a proposed $236 million new prison that would bring 1,512 beds to the system.

Wednesday’s legislative session ended just after 10 p.m. with no motion to vote on either the proposed amendment, or LB920.

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