Changes proposed for parole board

Members of the Judiciary Committee heard testimony Feb. 11 on two bills addressing the duties and membership of the state Board of Parole.

<a href='http://news.legislature.ne.gov/dist20' target='_blank' title='Link to the website of Sen. John McCollister'>Sen. John McCollister</a>
Sen. John McCollister

Under LB130, sponsored by Omaha Sen. John McCollister, at least one of the members appointed to serve after Jan. 1, 2023, must have experience treating mental illness or substance abuse.

Like Nebraska, many states already have specific criteria in state law regarding the background of board members, McCollister said, including experience in law, criminal justice and human resources.

“Due to the increase of behavioral health issues in our criminal justice system, and especially within our correctional system, it would make sense to have a member with training and experience with these issues,” he said.

The bill also would extend board members’ terms from six to eight years, beginning with terms starting after Jan. 1, 2023. No member could be reappointed for a consecutive term. In addition, board members would elect a chairperson to serve a four-year term. Currently, the chairperson is appointed by the governor.

Spike Eickholt, representing the ACLU of Nebraska, spoke in support of LB130. He said there are high rates of substance abuse and mental illness in the state’s correctional system.

“It would be natural that someone who’s on the parole board and reviewing people who will be placed back in the community would at least have some appreciation and experience with the issues of mental illness and substance abuse,” Eickholt said. “It’s important not only for the offenders appearing before the parole board, but also for parole board members to understand the needs of the people who are going to be [released].”

McCollister also introduced LB269. The bill would require the Board of Parole to review the record of every parole-eligible individual when they have been incarcerated for more than 30 years or are within three years of their earliest parole eligibility date.

He said the bill could help alleviate pressure on Nebraska’s already overcrowded prisons.

“The intent of [this bill] is to identify committed offenders who are least likely to reoffend and are most likely to succeed under release and parole,” McCollister said.

LB269 also would require the board to publish an annual list of committed offenders who are at least 60, have been convicted of nonviolent offenses, have high-risk medical conditions and could be considered for early parole.

Spike Eickholt, appearing again on behalf of the ACLU of Nebraska, testified in support of the bill. Once offenders reach a certain age, they become less of a threat to the community, he said, even if they committed a violent or heinous crime.

“I think if the public had some sort of understanding of who we have in prison and what it’s costing the community and the state to house those people, that might result in some pressure to consider actually paroling or releasing people of a certain age who are no longer a threat,” Eickholt said.

No one testified in opposition to either bill and the committee took no immediate action.

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