Omaha senator pushes Parole Board changes, marijuana decriminalization

A third bill of his aims to limit suspensions of younger K-12 students

By: - January 18, 2023 8:42 pm
Reception and Treatment Center

The new entrance to the Reception and Treatment Center, which merges the old Lincoln Corrections Center and Diagnostic and Evaluation Center into one, 1,350-bed facility. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — Nebraska Parole Board members who miss more than three meetings a year would lose their seat on the panel that decides which state prisoners can re-enter society early, under a bill State Sen. Terrell McKinney of Omaha introduced Wednesday.

Malcolm X donation
State Sen. Terrell McKinney of Omaha, left, and community activist Paul Fielmann speak about the donation of 96 copies of “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” to the state prison system. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

He said he did so, in part, because board members have missed a number of Parole Board meetings in recent years. When some members of the five-member board are absent, the remaining board members have tended to vote less often to grant parole.

McKinney said he was frustrated by the findings of Flatwater Free Press showing that fewer than half of the Parole Board’s meetings between May 2018 and December 2021 were attended by all five board members. 

Parole Board changes

Nearly 200 inmates who could have been paroled stayed in prison longer because fewer board members attended meetings, the analysis concluded. Fewer people were paroled when fewer board members attended a meeting.

Legislative Bill 631 was part of a group of criminal justice and school-related bills McKinney introduced Wednesday aimed at trying to ease prison crowding, improve paroled prisoners’ outcomes and keep kids out of the school-to-prison pipeline.

LB 631 would change the type of person who serves on the governor-appointed Parole Board. McKinney said the board needs more perspectives in order to better screen prisoners for likelihood of success if paroled. 

The bill would require the board to have at least one woman, at least one person of color, at least one person who has been incarcerated and at least one person ho understands how to help someone work their way back into the community after release.

The Nebraska Criminal Justice Reinvestment report found that the rates of parole granted by the board dropped from 78% in 2018 to 58% in 2020, McKinney said.

“I’m trying to make sure that if you’re on the Parole Board, you’re doing your job,” McKinney said. “When we are making decisions like that, we’ve got to make sure we’ve got as many diverse perspectives at the table as possible.”

The bill would require that a minimum of four Parole Board members be present to have a quorum to vote, up from three. Attempts to reach Parole Board members Wednesday about the bill were unsuccessful. The Governor’s Office had no immediate comment. The five full-time members of the board receive a base pay of at least $86,400.

Marijuana decriminalization

McKinney also proposed a bill that would decriminalize marijuana use and possession, expunge the criminal records of people who were convicted of nonviolent, marijuana-related crimes and would restore their ability to access the state safety net.

(Carol Yepes/Getty Images)

LB 634 would make it legal for anyone 21 or older to use, possess or grow small amounts of marijuana without violating state law. It would outlaw marijuana use in public places and vehicles.

County prosecutors would have 30 days to object after being notified of the intention to expunge a person’s criminal record. Those whose records are expunged would be able to access public benefits such as food stamps.

McKinney said poor people disproportionately face legal consequences for using marijuana. 

LB 634 also would remove marijuana from Nebraska’s list of controlled substances. The drug would still be listed as a controlled substance under federal law. That hasn’t stopped states such as Colorado from legalizing and taxing recreational and/or medical marijuana use.

McKinney acknowledged that his effort might simply start a conversation rather than passing, given a conservative Legislature. But he said Nebraska lawmakers should seize an opportunity to “be proactive” and not be the last state to embrace a national movement to decriminalize.

“I want to make sure we’re having a real discussion about cannabis and the role it is playing in our society and why we need to look at it in a different way — and to make some changes,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense to me that we’ve got men and women incarcerated right now (for cannabis), but I could get on my phone and buy American cannabis stocks.”

Reducing school suspensions 

Under LB 632, schools would be barred from suspending students who act up in pre-kindergarten through second grade.

(Getty Images)

McKinney said too many students facing discipline at that age are losing academic time to suspensions. Studies show learning loss at that age is much harder to bounce back from.

McKinney said that while some disruptive students need to be removed from the classroom, schools should be able to find ways to keep even those children in the building. One option might be in-school suspension, he said. Another might be behavior interventions in class. 

In his district in North Omaha, he said, children might not have internet access or have a parent home who can help them with their studies. Others might benefit from the stabilizing influence of being at school, he said. 

“We need our schools to find a better way to educate and modernize how we educate our kids,” he said. “The attention span of kids is decreasing. Something needs to be adjusted. And we need to be better at finding alternatives (to suspension).”

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Aaron Sanderford
Aaron Sanderford

Political reporter Aaron Sanderford has tackled various news roles in his 20-plus year career. He has reported on politics, crime, courts, government and business for the Omaha World-Herald and Lincoln Journal-Star. He also worked as an assignment editor and editorial writer. He was an investigative reporter at KMTV.