A prison reform bill advanced Friday from the Judiciary Committee, with six measures gathered into one omnibus bill that would address such issues as cellphones in prisons, restrictive housing and intensive probation. 

The original bill used to carry the legislation would have modified the Correctional System Overcrowding Emergency Act to encourage continued efforts to reduce overcrowding in Nebraska's correctional system while providing for a more gradual release of inmates beginning in July 2020. 

The prisons together are at around 160% of design capacity, and some individual prisons are higher than that. The prisons would have to release about 1,200 prisoners to get to 125% of design capacity.

"We tried to stairstep it down, and they came in and opposed it," said Judiciary Chairman Steve Lathrop, referring to the Department of Correctional Services. 

Director Scott Frakes said the department and the Board of Parole each have plans to respond to an overcrowding emergency. In addition, he has requests to the Appropriations Committee for money for inmate programs to ensure that men and women are ready for release.

The department has added more space for inmates, and will add more beds in Lincoln prisons in 2020 and 2021. In addition, the Legislature is set to OK funding for 384 more beds for high-risk, maximum-security inmates several years into the future.

Bills that were swept into the omnibus bill were: 

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

* LB262, which would 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, which would 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. Lathrop said county jail representatives testified there are prisoners waiting 100 days to get into the Regional Center; 

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

* LB739, which would ensure vulnerable inmates, including those with serious mental illness, are prohibited from restrictive housing. Most recent numbers show there are 322 inmates in restrictive housing, out of 5,410 inmates housed in the state's prisons and 106 in county jails. Some have been in restrictive housing more than a year, and some more than two years, Lathrop said; 

* LB91, which would provide an option for judges that would allow them to place defendants on intensive probation and defer judgement for an agreed period of time. There are jurisdictions that don't have problem-solving courts, and this would be used for less challenging cases to defer people from prison, if they can abide by the rules of probation.

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

On Twitter @LJSLegislature.


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