Even as some members of the Judiciary Committee said the bill does not go far enough, senators advanced a plan Wednesday meant to address crowding and other problems in the state's prisons. 

Six measures were gathered into one omnibus bill that would prohibit most cellphones in prisons, modify a restrictive housing work group and allow for judges to redirect offenders into intensive probation rather than prison.

It advanced to a second round of debate on a 40-0 vote. 

Judiciary Chairman Steve Lathrop acknowledged the real solutions to crowding in the prisons are to "build our way out of this or provide some kind of sentencing reform."

Sentencing reform would mean people spend less time in prison but they get more services and programming, or spend more time on work release so that they have an opportunity to establish themselves before getting out, he said. 

"That effort to do sentencing reform has run up against people who are in the old model of law enforcement. The county attorneys, police officers, attorney general," he said. 

They don't want to see sentencing reform, in his view, because it would be too easy to call that being soft on crime.

Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, a committee member, said the bill doesn't go far enough in addressing overcrowding and other problems in the prisons. 

One bill that is missing from the omnibus bill, she said, is one she had introduced (LB131) that would have re-established that a minimum sentence not exceed one-third of the maximum sentence for certain felonies, unless a mandatory minimum sentence is required by statute. 

The change would have the effect of allowing offenders to become parole-eligible sooner and alleviating the overcrowding crisis in Nebraska prisons. And it would save millions of dollars annually, Pansing Brooks said. 

That bill did not make it out of committee. But she hopes it will next session, she said. 

She said she knows Lathrop is working to maneuver through advocacy groups, including the county attorneys and attorney general, to solve the overcrowding crisis and get money for inmate programming and staffing. 

"What we can't do is try to build our way out of this," she said, "when the flow of people coming into the system is getting larger and larger." 

Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers said things he thinks ought to be in the bill are not, and things that don't amount to much are there. 

"This bill is innocuous," Chambers said. "This is what happens when the Legislature feels the need to placate the governor's office, the county attorneys and those who don't want to see anything change." 

After the bill advanced, the Nebraska Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 88 weighed in, saying state corrections workers oppose the portion of the bill that they contend would make use of restrictive housing unmanageable, and one that would prevent officers from being able to contact their families when their schedules are changed without notice. 

The bill that was added to LB686 that would ensure inmates with serious mental illness not be put in restrictive housing could result in an increase in the risk of violence to corrections employees, said union president Mike Chipman. 

Stopping corrections employees from bringing cellphones to their workplaces would prevent them from making plans with their families to cover for child care and other needed personal matters, Chipman said. 

"While we understand the importance of preventing inmate access to cellphones, it is not necessary to stop corrections employees from bringing their phones to the facilities and using them in secure portions of the facility responsibly," the union said.

The six bills that became LB686 are: 

* LB233, to make it a Class I misdemeanor to bring cellphones into the prisons, with exceptions for law enforcement, first responders and representatives of the state Ombudsman's office;

* LB262, to change the long-term restrictive housing work group, including the membership of the group, who appoints them, and the requirement that the group meet at least three times each year;

* LB240, to allow a judge to commit a defendant who is incompetent to stand trial to the Department of Health and Human Services for treatment at a facility other than one that is state-owned and operated;

* LB684 combined with LB90, to make post-release supervision optional for people who commit Class IV felonies;

* LB739, to ensure vulnerable inmates, including those with serious mental illness, are prohibited from restrictive housing;

* LB91, to provide an option for judges that would allow them to place defendants on intensive probation and defer judgment for an agreed period of time.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSLegislature.


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