Session Review: Judiciary

Lawmakers passed extensive changes to Nebraska’s criminal and juvenile justice systems this session.

Prison reform

Senators approved a measure that initiates prison reform in Nebraska.

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

The measure appropriates to the state Office of Probation Administration $5 million to expand mental health services and $3.8 million to expand new reporting centers, $5 million to the state Department of Correctional Services to create the vocational and life skills program and $200,000 to establish the Nebraska Center for Justice Research at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

The department must develop a re-entry program to transition inmates into communities and ensure an inmate’s rehabilitation and re-entry program is complete or near completion upon the inmate serving 80 percent of his or her sentence.

The bill also:
• requires parole officers to assist parolees and inmates prior to release in accessing housing and mental and physical health care;
• permits supervision of parolees via global positioning systems and other monitoring technology;
• directs the Commission on Public Advocacy to identify areas in Nebraska that need legal professionals; and
• creates the Nebraska Justice Reinvestment Working Group, comprising members selected by the governor, chief justice of the state Supreme Court and speaker of the Legislature. The group will assist the Council of State Governments Justice Center in producing a report by Sept. 1, 2015, that prescribes how to reduce prison overcrowding.

The bill includes provisions of two other bills.

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

LB932, introduced by Lincoln Sen. Bill Avery, prohibits the state and political subdivisions from asking job applicants to disclose their criminal history until an applicant has been determined to meet the minimum employment qualifications. Law enforcement agencies are exempt from the restriction. School districts are still allowed to conduct criminal background checks.

Senators passed the bill on a 46-0 vote.

Introduced by Ashford, LB999 authorizes the state Department of Health and Human Services to study the feasibility of establishing a behavioral health center at the site of the former Hastings Regional Center. The department must provide the governor, by Dec. 15, 2014, a program statement that examines:
• renovating or building facilities for up to 200 inmates at the center;
• estimated costs of building renovation, staffing, operation and a proposed project schedule;
• criteria for inmates to be placed in the center;
• long-term needs of mentally ill and substance addicted inmates; and
• programs needed to provide mental health and substance abuse treatment.

Senators passed the measure on a 47-0 vote.

Introduced by Imperial Sen. Mark Christensen, LB313 proposed that only the director of Correctional Services assign inmates to the Work Ethic Camp in McCook. Currently, the director, courts and the Nebraska Board of Parole place prisoners at the camp.

The bill was bracketed until March 4 on a 34-0 vote, ending consideration of the bill for the session.

Juvenile justice

LB464, introduced by Ashford, requires that misdemeanor and Class IIIA and IV felony cases involving a juvenile be initiated in juvenile court. The bill exempts Class I, II and III felonies for minors aged 14 and older from the mandatory juvenile court initiation.

Prosecutors have the option to transfer cases to adult court or have them heard before the juvenile court for a felony violation or for misdemeanor violations if a juvenile was 16 or 17 years old at the time the crime was committed.

The bill also outlines a plan for school districts and families to address student attendance problems. The plan may consider illness related to physical or behavioral health of the child, educational counseling and evaluation, referral to community agencies for economic services, family or individual counseling and assisting the family in working with other community services.

If a plan is unsuccessful and a student has missed 20 days of school, the school may submit a report to the county attorney. Illness that makes attendance impossible or impracticable cannot be included as the basis for referral to the county attorney.

Further, the bill creates a 10-person Council on Student Attendance that will review school district absentee policies and submit a report to the Legislature annually.

Provisions of LB1093, introduced by Bancroft Sen. Lydia Brasch, also are included in the bill. These expand the definition of juvenile facilitated conferencing and transfer $450,000 from the state Department of Health and Human Services’ budget to the state court administrator’s budget, foregoing the current granting process.

Senators passed the bill on a 46-0 vote.

Another bill changed several statutes relating to children.

LB908, introduced by Lincoln Sen. Colby Coash, primarily:
• permits juvenile courts to appoint guardians for abused or abandoned children;
• enables young adults to request guardianship past the age of 19 and requires that guardianship assistance funding be used specifically for their benefit;
• clarifies that guardianships and guardianship funding assistance can be extended when a child reaches 19 years old;
• defines “abandonment” as a parent’s act of intentionally withholding from a child without just cause or excuse: presence, care, love, protection, maintenance and the opportunity to display affection; and
• allows a biological father to file an objection to an adoption and seek custody of a child at any time during a pregnancy and up to five days after receiving notification of a child’s birth.

Senators passed the bill on a 49-0 vote.

Penalties

Senators passed a bill that reduces penalties for violating ignition interlock device restrictions. It was amended to also address human trafficking, photography and funerals.

Introduced by Wilber Sen. Russ Karpisek, LB998 lowers the penalty for using a vehicle not equipped with an ignition interlock device for those restricted to driving only vehicles with the device. Ignition interlock devices prevent a vehicle from starting if the driver has a blood-alcohol level of .03 or higher. The penalty is reduced from a Class IV felony to a Class I misdemeanor.

The bill includes provisions of Lincoln Sen. Amanda McGill’s LB1034, which prohibit a person from knowingly photographing, filming, recording or broadcasting images of another person’s intimate areas without that person’s consent, regardless of whether the person is in a public or private place.

Currently, Nebraska statute prohibits photography only in places where people have a reasonable expectation of privacy, such as restrooms and locker rooms.

An initial violation of the law is a Class I misdemeanor punishable by a $1,000 fine and up to one year of incarceration. A subsequent violation is a Class IV felony, punishable by a $10,000 fine and up to five years of incarceration. Sharing images or video made in violation of the proposed law is a Class III felony, punishable by up to 50 years imprisonment.

Additionally, if an offender is at least 19 years old and the victim is younger than 18, the offender is required to register as a sex offender.

The measure includes provisions of LB933, also introduced by McGill, which update statutes prohibiting human trafficking. Prohibited actions include debt bondage, threats of deportation, controlling or threating to control access to controlled substances and exploitation of disabilities.

Finally, the bill incorporates provisions of LB441, introduced by Hastings Sen. Les Seiler, which update the Nebraska Probate Code by clarifying who may be authorized to organize a funeral.

Senators passed the bill on a 49-0 vote.

LB674, introduced by Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers, enables judges to impose the same animal ownership restrictions for cruel neglect of animals as can be imposed for the cruel mistreatment of animals.

Currently, cruel mistreatment of an animal is a Class I misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year imprisonment, a $1,000 fine or both. The court has the option to order that a person not own, possess or reside with an animal for up to five years.

Under the bill, cruel neglect of an animal also would be a Class I misdemeanor and the offender would be subject to the same animal ownership restrictions.

Senators passed the bill on a 48-0 vote.

Firearms

LB390, introduced by Christensen, amends the Emergency Management Act by removing the governor’s authority to suspend or limit the sale, dispensing or transportation of firearms during a state of emergency.

The bill includes provisions of two other bills:
• LB694, introduced by Seiler, which allows firearms on school campuses for use in historical reenactments, hunter education programs or as part of an honor guard; and
• LB772, introduced by Hyannis Sen. Al Davis, which allows the adjutant general to spend up to $25,000 per event on aerial fire suppression or hazardous material response without a state of emergency proclamation issued by the governor.

The bill passed on a 45-0 vote.

Provisions of LB1035, introduced by McGill, were incorporated into LB699, and passed 43-0. McGill’s measure requires the Nebraska State Patrol and the state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to provide the Legislature a record of citizens unable to purchase handguns due to disqualification or disability. The report will be published on the Nebraska State Patrol and DHHS websites.

LB128, introduced by Coash, proposed a new offense of intentionally and knowingly removing a firearm or weapon from a peace officer in uniform or a peace officer displaying a badge of authority who is engaged in the performance of their official duties. A violation would have been a Class I misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum fine of $1,000 and up to one year in jail.

The bill remained on select file.

Product legality

Senators approved a bill that updates the list of banned synthetic drug compounds in Nebraska.

Introduced by Ogallala Sen. Ken Schilz, LB811 amends one class of currently banned substances under the Uniform Controlled Substances Act and adds another class of synthetic cannabinoids to the list of banned substances. The bill also revises the act to apply to substantially similar imitations of prohibited controlled substances that may be developed in the future.

The bill incorporates provisions of LB752, introduced by Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop. His measure expands the list of professions that trigger enhanced assault penalties to include firefighters, paramedics, state correctional employees, state Department of Health and Human Services employees and health care professionals.

The bill passed on a 46-0 vote.

Introduced by Cortland Sen. Norm Wallman, LB1001 allows postsecondary institutions or the state Department of Agriculture to grow industrial hemp for agricultural or academic research. The department is required to develop regulations for industrial hemp cultivation and certify sites where it is grown.

Only plants containing three-tenths percent or less of tetrahydrocannabinols (THC), the active ingredient of the cannabis plant, are approved for use.

The bill passed on a 39-2 vote.

LB403, introduced by Seiler, outlaws the sale of novelty lighters in Nebraska that have no child-proof safety feature.

The bill defines a novelty lighter as a mechanical or electrical device typically used for lighting cigarettes, cigars or pipes and designed to resemble a cartoon character, toy, gun, watch, musical instrument, vehicle, animal, food or beverage container or a similar item that plays musical notes, has flashing lights or has more than one button or function.

The bill does not apply to standard refillable lighters or lighters:
• manufactured prior to Jan. 1, 1980;
• incapable of being fueled or lacking a device necessary to produce combustion or flame; and
• that are disposable and printed or decorated with a logo, label, decal, artwork or heat shrinkable sleeve.

Novelty lighters being transported through Nebraska or stored in nonretail facilities in the state also are exempt from the ban.

Senators passed the bill on a 34-6 vote.

Other measures

LB920, introduced by Coash, adopts the Public Guardianship Act, which establishes an office to serve as guardian or conservator for situations in which no family member or suitable individual is available. The office will provide education, training and support to current and future guardians and conservators.

The bill establishes the Office of Public Guardianship under the jurisdiction of the Nebraska State Court Administrator, which will employ a director, deputy public guardian and up to 12 associate guardians. The bill also creates the Public Guardianship Cash Fund.

The bill passed on a 44-0 vote.

LB988, introduced by Schumacher, creates a process for entry into a decedent’s safe deposit box for the limited purposes of locating a will, deed to a burial plot or burial instructions. LB775, introduced by Seiler, provides an exception to the disclosure of confidential information rules to allow banks and other corporations to release information regarding date of death valuation and beneficiary designations for property in their possession. Provisions of both bills were incorporated into LB788 and passed on a 45-0 vote.

Senators debated legislation that would have expanded Nebraska’s workplace nondiscrimination laws to include gay and transgender employees.

LB485, introduced by Conrad, would have prohibited employers, employment agencies and labor organizations from discriminating against an individual on the basis of sexual orientation. The bill would have applied to employers having 15 or more employees, employers with state contracts, the state of Nebraska, governmental agencies and political subdivisions.

Current law prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, disability, marital status or national origin.

Conrad offered a motion on general file to invoke cloture, or cease debate and take an immediate vote on the bill. The motion failed 26-22, ending debate on the issue this session.

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