LINCOLN — Days of negotiations between state lawmakers, the governor and others have yielded no consensus on how to slow the fastest growing prison in Nebraska.
That was clear during debate on Tuesday of a bill to implement recommendations and ideas emerging from a joint study of the state’s criminal justice system by the Legislature, Gov. Pete Ricketts and the justice system of the state.
During the initial debate last week on Bill 920, senators were sharply divided on which provisions of the bill would reduce certain criminal penalties. State Senator Suzanne Geist of Lincoln, who like Ricketts strongly opposed these provisions, introduced an amendment to remove them from the bill.
In response, Speaker of the Legislative Assembly Mike Hilgers brokered talks last week in a bid to break the deadlock.
These meetings included Ricketts and a number of interested senators, including Omaha Sens. Steve Lathrop, Terrell McKinney and John Cavanaugh. It also included a number of criminal justice system officials, including Douglas County District Attorney Don Kleine, Douglas County Public Defender Tom Riley and Aaron Hanson, former president of the Omaha Police Union.
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But despite some initial promises, the talks ended on Monday without any agreement.
“We tried,” Hilgers said in an interview. “You have people who have significant philosophical differences on how to solve some of these problems. I don’t know if they can be solved with the time we have left.
This was evident in the sharp division in the Legislative Assembly on Tuesday.
Lathrop, sponsor of LB 920, said Geist’s proposed amendment would remove portions of the bill that would significantly impact the trajectory of the state’s prison population.
They included provisions to reduce sentences for possession of a small amount of drugs, eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug offences, establish criteria for judges to determine when sentences for several crimes should be served consecutively, to lower the penalty for burglaries that do not involve breaking and entering a personal dwelling and to require those convicted as habitual criminals under the state’s “three strikes” law to have already committed violent crimes.
A World-Herald analysis earlier this year found that Nebraska’s prison system is the fastest growing and most overcrowded in the United States. It is also one of the most racially unequal countries.
Lathrop noted that current projections have state prisons adding an additional 1,300 inmates by 2030. That would mean building another prison on top of the $270 million, 1,500-bed prison. which Ricketts pushed.
“It’s not one prison, it’s two, and it’s not $270 million, it’s closer to $500 million,” Lathrop said.
An analysis by the Crime and Justice Institute, a nonprofit organization that facilitated Nebraska’s justice reinvestment process last year, found that LB 920 as introduced by Lathrop would largely flatten the current growth of Nebraska inmates. Nebraska, reducing the number of inmates in Nebraska by 1,000 in 2030 from current projections. An analysis of Geist’s amendment indicated that it would reduce current projections of less than 150 inmates.
Geist said his amendment focused on 15 provisions from last year’s criminal justice study that had the group’s consensus support. She said she particularly sought to preserve elements of LB 920 that would improve treatment and programs for inmates, helping them avoid reoffending and returning to prison.
“Do I think we should lock them up and throw away the key? Absolutely not,” said Geist, who had also served on the criminal justice study committee. “But I’m not in favor of reducing sentences and having our judges change their sentences.”
Debate on the bill was scheduled to continue on Wednesday.
The World-Herald’s occasional series on Nebraska’s prison crisis begins with the spike in incarceration at the state’s edge and how past actions by lawmakers have played a part in that growth.
Nebraska locks people of color up at higher rates than the entire United States. The discrepancies between its low white incarceration rate and high rates for racial minorities are among the largest in the country.
Anthony Washington now sees his devotion to his gang as “false idolatry” that landed him in jail.
When Shakur Abdullah speaks to prisoners preparing to reintegrate into society, he advises them not to lose hope that they can change their lives.
Omaha Police have worked hand-in-hand with affected communities to employ all-new tactics, including a strengthened specialized gang unit, gunshot detection technology and improved tip rewards.
Nebraska’s tough 2009 law sent offenders to a state prison cell instead of a federal cell. Besides the cost to Nebraska taxpayers, the change meant that inmates were better able to maintain ties to local gangs.