A compromise is promised and a crime bill meant to ease prison overcrowding and reform sentencing laws has moved forward in the legislature.
Debate on the merits of LB 605 began before the bill hit the floor of the Unicameral Tuesday afternoon.
Attorney General Doug Peterson held a news conference in his Capitol office about two hours prior to legislative debate, in which he raised questions about the bill. Peterson as well as county attorneys expressed concern that revisions to state criminal statutes contained in LB 605 could tie their hands in some criminal cases and, ultimately, threaten public safety.
Peterson pointed out that the Justice Reinvestment Working Group formed, in part, to suggest changes in light of the prison sentencing miscalculation scandal which released hundreds of prison inmates prematurely
“Early release by neglect, well this is early release by design and that concerns us,” Peterson told reporters.
The major contention in LB 605 was an amendment added that would return Nebraska to the “one third” rule. The “one third” rule requires a judge to impose a minimum sentence no more than one third of the maximum sentence. Prosecutors object to returning to a standard established prior to the state “good time” law which, in effect, cuts a prison sentence in half.
Later, during legislative floor debate, Sen. Burke Harr of Omaha stated that while the intent of LB 605 is to revise prison sentencing in order to reduce prison overcrowding, the bill must be put into perspective.
“But, LB 605 is not prison reform, it is sentencing reform,” Harr said.
The bill, according to supporters, actually seeks to address three problems: prison overcrowding, the Nikko Jenkins case, and the prison sentence miscalculation scandal.
LB 605 would use probation, parole, and short periods of jail time to handle low-level crimes. It would provide job training and programs to address drug abuse, alcoholism, and mental health issues. It would impose supervised release for inmates leaving prison.
Revisions to the criminal statutes, it is hoped, would reduce the prison population to approximately 140% of capacity, about a 10% reduction from the current prison population.
State lawmakers argue that supervised release and alternatives to an abrupt exit from prison would have prevented Nikko Jenkins from being released directly into the public after serving in solitary confinement. Jenkins has been convicted of killing four people in Omaha upon his release.
New personnel at the Department of Correctional Services have pledged to address the mistakes that led to early release.
The sticking point remains, though. Prosecutors are unhappy about the amendment which would reinstate the one-third rule.
The sponsor of LB 605, Send. Heath Mello of Omaha, promised to address those concerns during his closing on the bill.
“We’ll work between General and Select File to try to find a compromise in regards to moving LB 605 forward.”
With that assurance, lawmakers advanced LB 605 to Select File on a 35-3 vote.
AUDIO: Brent Martin reports [:50]