A repeal of mandatory minimum prison sentences has advanced in the Unicameral, but only after it was narrowed to only apply to certain drug felonies.
Even after Legislative Bill 447 was drastically altered, it drew the minimum number of votes needed for passage, advancing on a 25-to-22 vote.
Sen. Mike Hilgers of Lincoln, who had opposed the original bill, told colleagues his position hadn’t changed, even after they had adopted the amendment to limit it to drug offense.
“This is not possession of marijuana ruining someone’s life. This is not possession of heroin ruining someone’s life,” Hilgers said during legislative floor debate. “This is manufacturing, distributing; these are the folks at the top of the food chain for a lot of these drug rings.”
Originally, the bill sponsored by Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, would have repealed minimum sentences for a variety of offenses, including hate crimes, some gun felonies, the assault of law enforcement personnel, and the manufacturing of child pornography.
Legislators adopted an amendment by Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn 29-9 which narrowed the bill only to drug offenses in which the person convicted carried large quantities of crack cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin.
“Not talking about violent criminals here,” Linehan said as she closed on her amendment. “We’re not talking about people who are carrying guns and doing drive-by shootings or rapists or murderers. This doesn’t affect the habitual criminal statutes.”
The measure must pass two more rounds of voting to be sent to Gov. Pete Ricketts, who opposed the original measure.
The changes didn’t change his mind.
Ricketts’ office released a statement from the governor only hours after the Unicameral took action:
“Removing mandatory minimums, even for drug felons, would soften Nebraska’s protections for public safety. I urge the Legislature to reconsider its decision to advance LB447, and to maintain these protections supported by our law enforcement community.”
Attorney General Doug Peterson’s office released a statement from the AG:
“Today’s vote to advance Senator Chambers’ LB447, which will reduce certain mandatory minimum sentences, sends the wrong message to those who intend to manufacture or distribute heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine in Nebraska. Currently, those individuals would be looking at a mandatory sentence of three or five years depending on drug quantity. If LB447 is passed, a drug dealer could be sentenced to simple probation. With drug use on the rise, and the heroin epidemic developing around the country, this is the wrong message for the lawmakers to send to heroin, methamphetamine, and cocaine dealers.”
Supporters of the measure say mandatory minimum sentences tie the hands of judges, who are better able to determine the appropriate sentences of individual cases.