Removal of minimum sentences advanced

A bill that would alter sentencing procedures for Nebraska courts was amended and advanced from general file April 15.

LB173, introduced by Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers, would remove the mandatory minimum sentence for habitual criminals and classify as habitual criminals only those offenders convicted of three violent offenses. Offenders would remain subject to a possible sentence of 10 to 60 years’ imprisonment.

Violent offenses include first degree murder, second degree murder, manslaughter, first degree assault, kidnapping, first degree sexual assault, sexual assault of a child, robbery and motor vehicle homicide.

Chambers said LB173 is part of a package of bills based on recommendations provided by the Council of State Governments Justice Center (CSG) and work done by a special investigative committee convened in 2014 to study overcrowding and administrative misconduct in Nebraska’s correctional system.

Criminals do not consider mandatory minimum sentences before committing crimes, Chambers said, so long sentences are not working as a crime deterrent.

“This idea of stacking punishment upon punishment is not valuable and is counterproductive,” Chambers said. “If that [greater third offense penalty] was a deterrent, why do you still have shootings unabated?”

A Judiciary Committee amendment, adopted 31-11, incorporated the provisions of another bill introduced by Chambers.

Provisions of LB172 would repeal the mandatory minimum sentence for Class IC and ID felonies. Currently, the mandatory minimum imprisonment for a Class IC felony is five years and three years for a Class ID. Both classes are punishable by up to 50 years’ imprisonment.

Omaha Sen. Beau McCoy opposed the bill and the amendment, saying that Nebraska’s current statutes requiring mandatory minimum sentences have helped reduce the state’s crime rate every year for the past decade. Reducing the prison population should not come at the expense of public safety, he said.

“We made a conscious decision in this Legislature to be tough on crime and I think this legislation goes back the opposite way,” McCoy said. “I think we can be tough on crime and smart on crime.”

Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln supported the bill and the amendment, saying lawmakers should trust the CSG recommendations. Our correctional system cannot afford to treat nonviolent criminals the same as violent offenders, she said.

“Do we really want to be filling our prisons with people who are doing things that are nonviolent?” Pansing Brooks said.

Senators advanced the bill from general file on a 28-9 vote.

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