A couple of crime bills, taking direct aim at reducing the prison population, are in position to pass in the Unicameral.
Legislative Bill 605 would provide alternatives to prison, such as drug courts and probation, for low-level crimes. LB 598 would end the use of solitary confinement as a punishment in favor of what is called “restrictive housing.”
Both grow out of recommendations from the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments, which helped the state study prison reform.
Sen. Matt Williams of Gothenburg cautioned colleagues against believing they have solved the problem of prison overcrowding.
“And this will not, as you have heard on the mic, be the end of prison reform, but is certainly a great beginning,” Williams said during legislative floor debate.
The Unicameral last year formed a special group of legislators to work with the executive and judicial branches of state government, guided by representatives of the Council of State Governments, to study how Nebraska could ease prison overcrowding.
The effort worked on two tracks. One sought to provide prison inmates treatment for drug addiction and alcoholism as well as job training, all in an effort to prepare them for release from prison and prevent them from returning. The other sought to divert those convicted of lower level crimes from prison and into alternative sentencing through drug courts or probation.
Populations in Nebraska prisons exceed designed capacity by more than 150%, all but inviting a lawsuit, according to some legislators.
It is hoped incorporating the changes would reduce the prison population by at least 10%.
Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln said the bills move the state in the right direction, but won’t resolve problems that erupted violently in Tecumseh this past weekend.
“It won’t prevent what happened this weekend, but it is a forward-looking piece of legislation,” Coash told colleagues. “This does not get us off the hook, colleagues, of a lawsuit which will come. And if you don’t think what happened this last weekend is going to be looked at by some attorneys, I think you’re wrong.”
Inmates at Tecumseh took over a couple of housing units and held the prison in turmoil for hours Sunday. Two inmates were killed, likely by their fellow inmates. Four others were injured. Two prison guard suffered injuries.
Sen. Les Seiler of Hastings told colleagues 1,342 inmates in state prisons are eligible for parole, but the programs aren’t there to make them eligible.
“There’s real dollar signs there,” Seiler said. “When you’re talking about dropping our population down to that level, you can save about $300 million in a new prison.”
State officials have estimated building a new prison would cost $300 million.