Nebraska lawmakers promise compromise on prison reforms

By GRANT SCHULTE

Associated Press

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska lawmakers moved forward Tuesday with a broad effort to reduce prison crowding while acknowledging that they still need to address criticism from state and county prosecutors.

Senators advanced two major prison reform proposals through a first-round vote after promising to work with the Nebraska attorney general’s office and county attorneys.

In a press conference before the debate, Attorney General Doug Peterson and prosecutors from Douglas, Sarpy, Lancaster and Cass counties argued that some of the proposals posed a threat to public safety.

Nebraska’s statewide prison population was 59 percent above its design capacity as of last month, with roughly 5,200 inmates. The crowding has prompted threats of litigation from the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska and some lawmakers are concerned that the U.S. Justice Department could intervene.

“Temporary and Band-Aid solutions are no longer a viable option,” said Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha, a leading member of the prison reform effort. “The prospect of federal court intervention to reduce overcrowding is very real.”

Lawmakers voted 35-3 on a sentencing reform bill and 32-0 to require that state officials develop a long-term plan to segregate fewer inmates. Some of the proposals were introduced based on recommendations by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, a national nonprofit that works with policymakers.

Both measures require two additional approval votes before they advance to Gov. Pete Ricketts. Senators adjourned for the day without acting on a third bill that would reduce the number of “habitual criminals” who receive harsher sentences.

Attorney General Doug Peterson and county attorneys criticized parts of two bills that are pending before lawmakers. One would dramatically reduce the number of cases in which prosecutors can seek “habitual criminal” status for repeat offenders, while another would reinstate a law that requires a wide sentencing range for most felonies - giving those offenders a chance to qualify for parole sooner.

Peterson said the bills could allow some violent offenders or sexual predators to return to the streets sooner.

“This goes to the heart of what we do as prosecutors, and that is to keep our streets safe,” he said.

The current habitual criminal law allows prosecutors to seek a minimum 10-year sentence for inmates with two prior felony convictions and who have served two separate prison sentences of a year or more.

The sentencing range law was eliminated during a get-tough-on-crime push in the 1990s. Under the bill, the minimum sentence imposed couldn’t be more than one-third of the maximum sentence.

Supporters say creating such a wide sentencing range gives inmates a strong incentive to change their lives because it gives them a chance to get out early on supervised parole. Those who are caught reoffending are returned to prison to serve the time remaining on their sentence, which could mean years behind bars.

Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln said the incentive isn’t as strong when the parole eligibility date is close to the end of the full sentence, at which point inmates can leave with no supervision.

Peterson said the so-called one-third rule could dramatically reduce the time inmates spend behind bars.

Inmates serving a maximum 50-year term can already cut their sentences in half by earning “good time” credit with positive behavior. Under the bill, those inmates could qualify for parole after serving one-third of 25 years - or a little more than 8 years.

Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts also criticized the measures Tuesday in a news column, saying Nebraskans want reforms that are “tough on criminals.”

“Some of the proposed policies under consideration in the Legislature, however, are out of step with the desire of Nebraskans to be tough on crime,” Ricketts said.

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