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Sentencing reform said to be one of most important issues to face Nebraska Legislature this session
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Sentencing reform said to be one of most important issues to face Nebraska Legislature this session

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Senators began debate Thursday on a prison sentencing bill that at least two senators said could be as consequential as any property tax or business tax incentives bill because of the big money that could be required as prison overcrowding continues.

The bill (LB131), introduced by Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, is about sentencing reform that would, as amended, require that a minimum sentence be no more than half the years as the maximum number of years. For example, if the maximum sentence is 20 years, the minimum could be no more than 10 years. 

This would be required for certain class felonies, unless a mandatory minimum sentence is required by law.

The change would have the practical effect of allowing offenders to become parole-eligible sooner, while alleviating the overcrowding crisis in Nebraska prisons, Pansing Brooks said. But just because an inmate would be parole eligible doesn't mean he or she would be granted parole. 

Judiciary Committee Chairman Steve Lathrop said in the state's overcrowded prisons, with a looming declaration of emergency population conditions July 1 and room for about only 150 more inmates, there are 900 people who have gone beyond their parole eligibility date and are still sitting in the state's overcrowded prisons.

Those 900 prisoners have not been paroled for a variety of reasons, including not getting the proper programming needed for release.

The prison population has grown by 200 over the past year, Lathrop said.

Prison population projections show that by the end of 2030 the prisons could hold more than 7,300 inmates. That would mean the department would have to build 200 beds a year just to be at 140% design capacity, he said. 

Senators must decide if the state wants to try to build its way out of the crisis or address it with sentencing reform, Lathrop said. 

"This bill is a consequential bill because we can't build our way out of this," Lathrop said.

If the state has to spend that kind of money on brick and mortar, and workers and operations, it can forget about property tax relief, business tax incentives and properly funding the schools, he said.

Sen. Julie Slama of Peru opposed the bill, noting the felonies that would be affected are manslaughter, aggravated assault, burglary and sexual assault of a child.

The debate centers around a serious concept, she said, that involves sentencing a person guilty of a heinous crime to 10 to 20 years -- instead of 19 to 20 years, and thus allowing parole eligibility in a shorter time.

Similar bills have been introduced in previous years and have always been opposed by the Attorney General's office and prosecutors, who say the discretion by judges to determine a sentence on a case-by-case basis that addresses the specific facts of a case, as well as the needs and concerns associated with a particular offender, is of utmost importance.

The attorneys believe it could pose a significant and unnecessary risk to public safety, and have no verifiable impact on crowding of prisons.

Appropriations Chairman John Stinner spoke in support of the bill. 

"I think we have a lot of other priorities than to build prisons," he said.

Do the math, he said. It would be $400 million to $500 million the state would have to spend, not including the operating costs. 

"This Legislature needs to get a grip," he said. 

The Legislature is expected to continue debate on the bill Tuesday.

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

On Twitter @LJSLegislature

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