Discussion on criminal justice reform slows fiscal action

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Action on the state budget slowed in the Nebraska Legislature on Thursday, reflecting an ongoing stalemate between supporters of building a new prison and supporters of criminal justice reform.

What was officially on the agenda Thursday was the second of three rounds of the state budget debate. But what Senator Steve Lathrop wanted to talk about was criminal justice reform. And because he was at the front of the line to table amendments, he and his supporters controlled the debate.

One of Lathrop’s reforms on the mind was changing the way Nebraska’s prison sentences are structured. Currently, the law sets the maximum number of years a person can be sentenced to prison for particular crimes, but a judge can sentence someone to a minimum of almost that many – for example, a minimum of 19 years and a maximum of 20 years.

Lathrop says many prisoners choose to spend a little longer in prison until they reach that maximum – a practice known as “jamming out” – rather than submit to the surveillance they would have if they were released on parole. But he says it contributes to the state’s prison overcrowding problem and increases the prisoner’s chances of re-offending, compared to being released on parole.

“A parole officer is going to require a person who is paroled to follow the conditions of their parole, which includes maintaining employment, maintaining suitable housing, they may be randomly tested or frequently, she waives some of her civil rights so they are likely to be searched and arrested. And a parole officer can come into their house and don’t need a warrant. In other words, it’s a far superior means of discharge than just having an individual stuck,” Lathrop said.

Senator Curt Friesen asked Lathrop why he was taking time during the budget debate to talk about criminal justice reform.

“Is your objective in filibustering here not to allow us to make changes to the budget?” Friesen asked.

“No, it’s not,” Lathrop said. “The only thing that concerns me is an amendment that would fund the prison. Because I think it’s irresponsible of us to fund this prison until we decide what policy to follow. Are we satisfied with prison population growth of 2.5% (per year) And if so, we must be talking about $1 billion in prison construction, not $270 million.

Governor Pete Ricketts has proposed building a new $270 million prison to replace the Nebraska State Penitentiary. Lathrop said this would only increase capacity by about 700 prisoners and would still leave the prisons overcrowded with more than 1,300 prisoners by 2030. The proposed budget provides money for a new prison, but does not allow to spend it, which is the amendment Lathrop says he’s concerned about someone showing up.

Sen. Lou Ann Linehan told Lathrop she spoke to the Ricketts Office of Policy Research, or PRO, about it.

“I spoke to PRO and they said they hadn’t asked anyone in the body to do it, and I haven’t heard anyone talk about doing it. So if we could, I don’t know, somehow make sure that wouldn’t happen, would you take out some of your amendments so other people can talk about some of the things they maybe want in the budget?” Linehan asked.

Lathrop said he had “trust issues” with the idea. “And I’ve also seen that people who own stuff get what they want here. And now I’m more determined to continue on the path I’m on because I’m not getting anywhere here. And no matter how long I stay here talking about one of the biggest problems facing the state and the solution I’ve been working on for four years and especially for nine months and I can’t find a partner dancing,” he added.

Lathrop complained that opponents of criminal justice reform refused to negotiate with him. A spokesman for Ricketts said the governor met with Lathrop to share his support for some of the proposed criminal justice reforms, but continued to oppose others that many who have studied them believe threaten public safety.

Sen. Mike Hilgers, who as Speaker of the Legislative Assembly sets the agenda, said any compromise should be the result of collaboration, not threat of delay.

“It’s not going to happen because someone is trying to hold things hostage in the body or suggesting that the way you get things done here is to slow things down. I want to be very clear: if you slow things down, you hurt the body. You don’t get influence on my process, you don’t get influence on the work I do, and you don’t force me to compromise on any other issue,” Hilgers said.

Lathrop said he wasn’t making threats, just adapting to how the Legislature works these days.

“What I follow is on a course of action that I now feel is necessary given how this place works. Is this a violation of standards? If we judged this course by the standards of 10 or 20 years ago, probably. But I don’t see it (as) a violation of standards anymore,” he said.

After four hours, senators voted to halt debate, then second-round approved the first budget bill in a voice vote.

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