Constitutional amendment could result in shorter sentences

A proposed state constitutional amendment that would give the courts more flexibility in sentencing was heard by the Judiciary Committee Feb. 13.

Sen. John McCollister
Sen. John McCollister

LR281CA, sponsored by Omaha Sen. John McCollister, would amend the Nebraska Constitution to allow lawmakers to enact legislation permitting courts to reduce final sentences.

If passed, the resolution would place the question on the November 2020 general election ballot.

McCollister said the proposal would allow a trial court judge to review an inmate’s sentence, similar to the authority currently invested in the state Board of Pardons.

“Sentencing reform is a major focus of our efforts here in Nebraska and nationwide to improve the criminal justice system,” he said. “LR281CA would allow the Legislature to continue the progress we’ve made.”

Tom Riley, representing the Nebraska Criminal Defense Attorneys Association, spoke in favor of the measure. The state has to stop thinking about the criminal justice system as a “lock them up and throw away the key” situation, he said.

“[Inmates] may be eligible for parole when they’re [old], but the Nebraska Supreme Court isn’t going to do anything about excessive sentences,” Riley said. ‘They’ve made it quite clear that as long as a sentence is imposed within the statutory guidelines, they’re not going to touch it unless there’s been an extreme abuse of discretion.”

Opposing LR281CA was Corey O’Brien, speaking on behalf of the state attorney general’s office. The measure would create a separation of powers conflict, he said, by investing authority in the court system that currently is reserved only for the executive branch.

The committee took no immediate action on the bill.

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