Prison reform measures proposed

Bills addressing prison overcrowding and oversight of Nebraska’s correctional system were heard by the Judiciary Committee Feb. 20. Both were introduced by Omaha Sen. Heath Mello.

Mello said the policy changes were recommended to the Nebraska Justice Reinvestment Working Group—created by LB907 in 2014—through a report provided by the Council of State Governments Justice Center.

LB605 would make numerous changes to Nebraska’s penal system. These would include:
• adding a new felony classification and penalties;
• updating property offense amount thresholds to account for inflation;
• requiring that all sentences of one year or more be served in a state prison and sentences less than one year be served in a county jail;
• requiring the Office of Parole Administration to establish a process to determine the risk a parolee may pose to a community and the level of supervision required;
• creating the Committee on Justice Reinvestment Oversight to develop and review Nebraska’s criminal justice policies; and
• appropriating $30,000 to the Nebraska Supreme Court to create a sentencing information database.

Additionally, the bill outlines how probation violations would be punished, rates for restitution payments and how criminal history information would be disseminated.

Mello said revisions to sentencing and incarceration policies would reduce prison populations and make Nebraska safe.

“This bill is one part of a broad effort to have the space and tools to promote public safety and hold offenders accountable,” Mello said.

Scott Frakes, the new director of the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, testified in support of the bill, saying that expanding supervised release options would have an immediate impact on prison overcrowding.

Jim Vokal, executive director of the Platte Institute, also spoke in favor of the bill, saying it is critical for Nebraska to address prison overcrowding now. Unless something is done to control growth, he said, the state’s prison population is expected to increase to 170 percent of capacity by 2020.

No one spoke in opposition to LB605.

LB606, also introduced by Mello, would create the Office of Inspector General of the Nebraska Correctional System. Appointed and supervised by the Office of Public Counsel, the inspector general would serve a five-year term and receive a $96,000 annual salary.

Duties of the inspector general would include conducting investigations, audits, inspections and other reviews of the Nebraska correctional system. The inspector would be required to provide a summary of all reports and investigations on or before Sept. 15 each year to the Judiciary Committee and governor.

Additionally, the bill would require the governor to declare an overcrowding emergency when the director of correctional services certifies that the prison population is over 140 percent of design capacity.

Currently, the governor has the option of whether or not to declare an emergency when the population reaches the 140 percent threshold. Declaration of an overcrowding emergency mandates that the state Parole Board immediately consider all eligible inmates for parole.

Mello said the report produced by the Legislature’s special investigative committee made it clear that Nebraska’s current policies regarding prison overcrowding are not working.

“Nebraska’s situation proves it is unreasonable to expect the governor to declare an overpopulation emergency out in the open,” Mello said.

Marshall Lux, director of the state’s Ombudsman’s Office, testified in support of the bill, saying that the inspector general position created for the child welfare department has worked successfully. He said an inspector general of corrections would be an equally efficient way for the Legislature to monitor the state’s prison system.

“The Department of Corrections needs a lot of oversight from this institution and an [inspector general] would provide that,” he said.

Mike Marvin, executive director of the Nebraska Association of Public Employees, also spoke in favor of the bill. Overcrowding is one of the most dangerous situations for corrections employees, he said, so requiring an emergency declaration is a safety issue.

“A situation like that needs to be addressed as soon as it happens,” he said.

Frakes testified in opposition to LB606, saying the overcrowding emergency provision could result in dangerous inmates being released on parole.

“This is not a responsible way to reduce prison population,” he said.

The committee took no immediate action on the bills.

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