Two measures aimed at addressing concerns with Nebraska's prisons and criminal justice system passed with overwhelming support from state lawmakers on Thursday.
The first bill (LB598), which passed 47-0, takes aim at what happens behind bars, boosting oversight of the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, restricting prisons’ use of solitary confinement and other forms of segregation, and giving more independence to the state parole board.
The other measure (LB605), which passed 45-0, would expand the use of probation for people convicted of low-level offenses, and expand and improve supervision of inmates upon their release in an attempt to reduce the number of people who return to crime after leaving prison.
The bills, which now head to Gov. Pete Ricketts for approval, will enhance public safety and lay a foundation for reforming Nebraska’s overcrowded prison system, said Omaha Sen. Heath Mello, who sponsored LB605.
“But in the same vein, we still have a lot of work to do,” he said.
The measures, based on recommendations from the Council of State Governments, will have long-running impacts on the state’s criminal justice system, said Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus, who sponsored LB598.
But they will not immediately address prison overcrowding or eliminate major systemic issues with the state’s approach to crime, he said.
“The expensive stuff remains.”
That includes alternative, community-based programming to keep nonviolent offenders with mental or substance abuse — who make up about a third of the state’s prison population — from languishing behind bars, he said.
Also needed are further steps to ensure inmates don’t “jam out,” or simply leave prison without any kind of continued help or supervision once their sentences are complete, Schumacher said.
A group of senators will continue to examine those issues over the summer.
The corrections reform measures were among 42 passed by lawmakers Thursday during an unusually efficient day in the Nebraska Legislature.
Here are some of the other bills advanced to the governor for final approval:
LB70 (35-11) — Sets a tax on touch-screen games and similar devices that pay out cash, unless the operator can prove the device is not a form of gambling. Sponsored by Schumacher.
LB200 (47-0) — If the federal government expands the state's ability to tax online sales, would use that revenue to provide more property tax credits. Sponsored by Sen. Al Davis of Hyannis.
LB226 (48-0) — Allows crowdfunding of businesses in exchange for small ownership shares. Sponsored by Lincoln Sen. Colby Coash.
LB243 (39-5) — Creates a pilot project providing family-finding services for children in foster care. Sponsored by Lincoln Sen. Kate Bolz.
LB259 (47-0) — Allows business owners to exempt their first $10,000 worth of tangible property, for an average tax savings of $162. Sponsored by Sen. Mike Gloor of Grand Island.
LB366 (37-8) — Increases the personal allowance for Medicaid recipients in nursing homes by $10 a month. Sponsored by Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks.
LB382 (46-0) — Makes entities that offer high school equivalency programs eligible for $400,000 in grants from the state Department of Education. Sponsored by Omaha Sen. Tanya Cook.
LB419 (39-5) — Provides a sales tax exemption for zoo admissions and memberships along with purchases by zoos. Sponsored by Omaha Sen. Heath Mello.
LB469 (43-1) — Requires development of a state energy plan that includes carbon emissions. Sponsored by Papillion Sen. Jim Smith.
LB591 (46-0) — Allows people with disabilities and their families to set up special bank accounts, enabling them to more easily save money without disqualifying them from public benefits. Sponsored by Bolz.
LB629 (47-0) — Creates a regulatory framework for ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft. Sponsored by Mello.