Deja vu: Prosecutors and law enforcement again oppose some sentencing reforms

By: - January 27, 2022 6:50 am
Nebraska State Penitentiary

Replacing the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln with a new, 1,500-bed facility still won’t solve the state’s chronic prison overcrowding, some senators argued Thursday. (Rebecca S. Gratz for the Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — Just as they did in 2015, prosecutors and law enforcement officials are criticizing criminal sentencing reforms recommended to reduce Nebraska’s nation-leading prison overcrowding as going too far.

While opponents said they support some steps, such as expansion of drug courts and increasing prison rehabilitation programs, they attacked suggestions to reduce  minimum sentences and limit longer sentences for so-called “habitual criminals.” 

“When we did get tough on gun crimes, the trend line for violence went down.That’s incontrovertible,” said Sgt. Aaron Hanson, who testified Wednesday on behalf of the Omaha Police Department and its union.

“Our community got safer. There were less shootings, there were less homicides,” Hanson said.

‘We’re an outlier’

He referred to stepped up enforcement by police in Omaha and a 2009 state law that enhanced sentences for gun crimes — factors that a recent Omaha World-Herald report showed contributed significantly to Nebraska’s prison overcrowding woes.

The state now has the most overcrowded prison system in the country, holding about 1,800 more inmates that it was designed to hold.

While crime rates have fallen in recent years, Nebraska prisons now hold about 21% more inmates that they did a decade ago. By comparison, the rest of the country saw an 11% decline in prison population.

“We’re an outlier,” State Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha said at a public hearing at the State Capitol.  

Sen. Steve Lathrop
Sen. Steve Lathrop of District 12 speaks on the floor of the Nebraska Legislature. (Rebecca S. Gratz for the Nebraska Examiner)

He distributed a graph showing that Nebraska’s prison population is projected to grow to 7,327 by the year 2030, up from about 5,400 today. Even if the state builds the 1,500-bed prison proposed by Gov. Pete Ricketts, that growth projection would still leave the state about 2,300 inmates above its design capacity.To change that trend line, Lathrop said, the state needs either to plan on building two new prisons, at a cost of over a half billion dollars, or reform prison sentences and adopt less costly alternatives.

Last year, Ricketts, Lathrop and other state leaders invited the federal Crime and Justice Institute (CJI) to take a comprehensive look at the state’s parole, probation and prison systems to see what is driving the overcrowding.

The study was similar to another one conducted by the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center in 2014. That study spawned legislation in 2015 that was supposed to reduce Nebraska’s prison overcrowding by 1,000 inmates.

Reforms in 2015 fell short

But prison overcrowding continued to rise after Legislative Bill 605 was passed. Prosecutors and law enforcement officials opposed some of the sentencing reforms recommended by a blue-ribbon panel of state and local officials, and prison sentences grew longer.

This time, Lathrop introduced a bill with a long list of sentencing reforms suggested by a group that dug into data compiled by CJI.

Beside expanding drug courts, Legislative Bill 920 would discourage use of mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent felonies and reduce sentences for some felony burglary offenses. It would also streamline the parole process for inmates who behave and make possession of less than a half-gram of a controlled substance a misdemeanor instead of a felony.

But reducing sentences for drug crimes and reducing penalties for burglary was slammed by representatives of the Nebraska State Patrol, Douglas County Attorney’s Office, Nebraska Attorney General’s Office and Omaha police. State Sen. Suzanne Geist of Lincoln, who was part of the CJI group, also opposed some of the steps as soft on crime.

Kleine is questioned

Geist questioned whether reducing criminal penalties could result in less crime. While some supporters of LB 920 said there’s no evidence that criminals contemplate the potential penalties before they break a law, Hanson, of the Omaha Police Union, said getting tougher on crime and imposing longer sentences reduced homicides in Omaha.

Sen. Terrell McKinney of Omaha asked Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine if he was “comfortable” with his charging decisions. McKinney said such decisions had contributed to his North Omaha district having the 11th highest incarceration rate for Blacks among U.S. cities. 

“That’s very sad,” Kleine responded. He said charging decisions are based on the evidence, adding that 60% of the homicide victims in Omaha were African American.

Lathrop said LB 920 was not “a left-wing exercise” or “feeling sorry for inmates,” but a common-sense way to avoid building a second, new prison. Doing that, he said, would take away funds from other priorities, such as reducing property taxes.

The Judiciary Committee took no action on the bill Wednesday after a four-hour hearing.

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska state government and the state for decades. Previously with the Omaha World-Herald, Lincoln Journal Star and Omaha Sun, he is a member of the Omaha Press Club's Hall of Fame. He grows hops, brews homemade beer, plays bass guitar and basically loves traveling and writing about the state. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation.