Sen. Brad Ashford, chairman of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee, said earlier this year that he plans to call for a legislative study of Nebraska’s sentencing laws.
Let’s hope that Omaha city politics -- and concern about being labeled soft on crime -- don’t mess up that plan. The study could point the way to changes that could save taxpayer money without sacrificing public safety.
Ashford is one of four candidates vying to be the next mayor of Omaha. Ashford, who recently changed his political affiliation from Republican to independent, has the backing of several prominent Democrats, including former Mayor Mike Fahey.
The potential for the Omaha mayor’s race to spill over into legislative debate was on display last week at a hearing before the Judiciary Committee.
Incumbent Mayor Jim Suttle, a Democrat who has criticized state officials for giving too many furloughs and too much "good time" to prisoners convicted of gun offenses, testified in front of Ashford’s committee in support of a bill that would restrict the use of good time. Suttle has been hammering on the issue since Omaha police shot and killed a prisoner who had been released on an extended furlough last fall.
One of the major problems facing the Judiciary Committee is prison overcrowding. The prison population in Nebraska has been growing at three times the rate of the state’s overall population growth. Nebraska’s prison population is about 145 percent of capacity, with more than 4,600 prisoners held in space intended for 3,175. When prison population hits 140 percent of capacity, state law calls for a report to go to the governor, who can declare an emergency.
So far, Gov. Dave Heineman has not done so. But inaction could risk intervention by the courts. In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered California to reduce its prison population to 137.5 percent of capacity on the grounds that overcrowding constituted cruel and unusual punishment.
Sentencing laws across the country have grown stricter in the past few decades. Now the pendulum is swinging the other way toward providing alternative sentences, particularly for nonviolent crimes.
Nebraska officials already have taken worthwhile steps to reduce the prison population by paroling more nonviolent offenders.
But, as the Journal Star Editorial Board pointed out in an editorial two months ago, more can be done. A study by the Pew Center showed that the average time served in state prisons rose by 8 percent from 1990 to 2009, for example.
Perhaps the state also could make better use of technology -- ankle bracelets, GPS tracking, remote alcohol testing -- to monitor parolees or offenders serving sentences at home.
The Legislature should be making a full-throttle effort to determine whether the state’s prisons are being used properly in cost-effective fashion. It would be a shame if Omaha city politics inhibited that effort.