Prison reform measures advanced

The Legislature’s effort to initiate prison reform advanced from general file March 26.

Introduced by Omaha Sen. Brad Ashford, LB907 is intended to reduce the recidivism rate of offenders released from prison.

A Judiciary Committee amendment, adopted 36-0, replaced the initial draft of the bill and primarily would:
• appropriate to the state Office of Probation Administration $5 million to expand mental health services and $3.8 million to expand new reporting centers;
• appropriate $5 million to the Nebraska Crime Commission for the vocational and life skills program;
• provide $200,000 to establish the Nebraska Center for Justice Research at the University of Nebraska at Omaha;
• create a reentry program coordinator to advise corrections officials regarding programs that transition inmates into communities; and
• require the state Department of Correctional Services to ensure that an inmate’s rehabilitation/reentry program is complete or near completion upon the inmate serving 80 percent of his or her sentence.

An Ashford amendment to the committee amendment, adopted 36-0, would create the Nebraska Justice Reinvestment Working Group, which would comprise state senators, correctional and law enforcement officials, judges, attorneys, community members and former inmates. The group would assist the Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center in producing a report that prescribes how to reduce prison overcrowding to 125 percent within five years.

Ashford said the bill builds a platform from which Nebraska and the CSG, with whom the state has contracted to study its correctional system, can begin solving the problems of prison overcrowding and offender recidivism.

“This will be successful,” Ashford said. “Working with CSG and this Legislature … we will totally reform and revamp our prison system to reduce the prison population and keep our citizens safer.”

Speaking in support of the bill, Omaha Sen. Heath Mello said LB907 would save the state money by beginning the process of diverting nonviolent offenders away from prison.

“The process we have right now is very expensive, when we put everyone in corrections,” Mello said.

Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop said prison overcrowding has led to conditions such as poor air quality and a lack of programs that put the state at risk for inmate lawsuits. LB907, he said, would show the courts that the state is making efforts to fix correctional system problems—possibly protecting Nebraska from mandated prisoner release or prison construction.

The bill includes provisions of two other bills.

LB808, introduced by Lincoln Sen. Danielle Conrad, would provide $500,000 to expand a student loan assistance program for attorneys who provide public legal service in rural Nebraska. Recipients would be eligible for $6,000 per year in loan forgiveness for at least three years of practice in an area with a population of less than 15,000.

LB932, introduced by Lincoln Sen. Bill Avery, would prohibit a public employer from asking a job applicant to disclose their criminal history until the applicant has been determined to meet minimum employment qualifications. Law enforcement agencies would be exempt from the restriction.

Senators advanced the bill on a 36-0 vote.

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