Criminal justice system changes proposed

Resocialization and supervision of inmates released from prison was the focus of legislation heard by the Judiciary Committee Feb. 6.

LB907, introduced by Omaha Sen. Brad Ashford, would change how Nebraska manages released prisoners in several ways. The bill would:
• require judges to assign up to three years of supervised release as part of sentencing;
• require judges to consider public safety, accountability and recidivism at the time of sentencing;
• create a reentry probation officer position, based on the federal level probation officers, to oversee reentry into the community;
• conduct comprehensive risk and needs assessments to ensure the identification of various risk factors and reduce recidivism;
• expand reporting centers to every judicial district;
• enhance reporting and accountability for the Office of Probation Administration and the Office of Parole Administration;
• expand mental health services at the reporting centers through the voucher system; and
• establish the Nebraska Center on Justice Research to advise the Legislature on policy, evidence-based programs, mental health needs and to conduct ongoing assessments on Nebraska’s justice system.

Ashford said he introduced the bill because nearly 40 percent of released inmates who leave Nebraska prisons do so without adequate supervision and support.

“That is absolutely a recipe for disaster,” he said.

Todd Schmaderer, Omaha police chief, testified in support of LB907, saying better inmate supervision after release reduces recidivism.

“We all benefit when an offender has the proper resources and oversight upon release from incarceration,” he said. “It gives this individual the best chance of success.”

The committee heard testimony on a second bill by Ashford designed to reduce Nebraska’s prison population. LB999 would change the emphasis of Nebraska’s criminal justice system from incarceration of offenders to transition and reentry to the community.

The bill would:
• increase accountability for the Office of Probation, state Department of Correctional Services and Office of Parole Administration through enhanced reporting requirements and create a deidentified data archive for criminal justice research;
• fund violence reduction and anger management programming, job training and housing; and
• create the Reentry Programming Board and eliminate the Community Corrections Division of the Crime Commission.

The Reentry Programming Board would coordinate with state Department of Correctional Services, the Office of Parole Administration, the Office of Probation Administration and nongovernmental organizations to track inmate, probationer and parolee participation in programming, develop a plan for transitioning from a community corrections model to a reentry model and inform criminal justice system stakeholders and the general public about the availability, use and benefits of reentry programs.

Jim Vokal, executive director of the Platte Institute, testified in support of both bills. He said about half of Nebraska’s prisoners are nonviolent offenders and improving reentry and supervisory programs is a better solution than building more prisons.

“We cannot brick and mortar our way out of this criminal justice predicament,” Vokal said.

Omaha City Councilperson Aimee Melton also testified in support of both bills, saying that improved supervision of inmates via electronic devices, would deter them from resuming violent behavior.

“I think that [tracking] is an essential tool for the Omaha police and for the probation officer to know who [offenders] are hanging around with,” Melton said. “We need to stop these violent offenders from going back into the same life they were in before they were incarcerated.”

Hall County Attorney Mark Young testified in opposition to LB907, asking the committee to require that offenders have no contact with victims. He also suggested that victim restitution be made part of the supervised release plans.

The committee took no immediate action on LB907 or LB999.

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