Home Part of States Newsroom
Major criminal justice reform bill limps past initial debate amid disagreements


Major criminal justice reform bill limps past initial debate amid disagreements

May 23, 2023 | 12:00 am ET
By Paul Hammel
Major criminal justice reform bill limps past initial debate amid disagreements
A huddle of state senators cluster around State Sen. Justin Wayne (in blue sweater) to discuss ways to move forward a criminal justice bill. Ultimate passage remained uncertain Monday night. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — A major criminal justice proposal limped forward Monday night at the Nebraska Legislature amid lingering disagreements over sentencing policies.

Legislative Bill 50 — which was the subject of sidebar negotiations throughout the day and into the evening — was advanced from first-round debate on a 28-8 vote. But the vote came only after an agreement to work out differences before the measure came up for debate again, which is likely later this week as the 2023 session winds down.

The measure was billed as a way to provide incentives for inmates to engage in rehabilitation programming and perhaps get released on parole earlier, with a larger goal of reducing the need for construction of a second new prison.

Major criminal justice reform bill limps past initial debate amid disagreements
State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

“This bill is probably one of the most fiscally responsible things we can do this year,” said State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha, who chairs the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee and led crafting of the multiple proposals in the bill.

He estimated that Nebraska could be spending as much as $263 million a year to house inmates at the current projected growth in prison population, and be forced to build two new prisons, unless something is done.

But critics said that LB 50 went too far in allowing a possible earlier release from prison on parole. They said it must be amended before it wins support from them, the governor, attorney general and county prosecutors.

Lincoln Sen. Carolyn Bosn, a former county prosecutor, said she could not support the bill unless changes were made in two clauses — one that allows earlier parole eligibility for some inmates, and another that would reduce criminal penalties for some repeat, or “habitual,” criminals.

‘A hard conversation’

Under LB 50, someone sentenced to serve 20 years in prison would be eligible for parole release after six years, she said. Right now, they are eligible at 10 years.

Major criminal justice reform bill limps past initial debate amid disagreements
State Sen. Carolyn Bosn of Lincoln  (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

“As a prosecutor, I’m not willing to look a victim (of crime) in the face and tell them that the sentence may be 20 years but they’re parole eligible in six,” Bosn said. “It’s a hard conversation.”

A clear divide was evident within the eight-member Judiciary Committee as the Monday night debate commenced. It began only minutes after a last-minute meeting between Wayne and representatives from the governor’s and attorney general’s offices.

Omaha Sen. Terrell McKinney, who has insisted that criminal sentencing reforms be paired with final approval of construction of a $366 million prison, said it was “deja vu all over again.” That was a reference to a similar criminal justice proposal last year that was torpedoed by last-minute opposition from then-Gov. Pete Ricketts, Attorney General Doug Peterson and prosecutors.

‘Who cares what they think?’

“Who cares what they think?” McKinney said Monday. “They aren’t state senators. They don’t run the body. Stop listening to their fear-mongering.”

But three first-year members of the Judiciary Committee, Sens. Teresa Ibach, Barry DeKay and Rick Holdcroft, said they have questions about LB 50 after talking with local prosectors, as well as representatives of Gov. Jim Pillen and Attorney General Mike Hilgers.

“I believe if you’ve done the crime, you do the time,” said Holdcroft, who admitted he was new to criminal punishment issues.

But supporters of LB 50 said being “tough on crime” and protecting public safety means that inmates must engage in rehabilitation before they end their sentences.

Too many ‘jam out’

Wayne said that right now, about 800 inmates a year “jam out” — meaning they complete their sentences without any programming — and most of those are the most serious felons. With 90% to 95% of all prison inmates eventually getting out, he said, it only made sense to encourage efforts to make inmates successful when they return to society.

“Ninety percent of these people are going to be your neighbors,” said Omaha Sen. Wendy DeBoer. “They can either come back as criminals or better citizens.”

Wayne said the chances of working out the differences between the two sides were “strong.”

Ibach said she wanted something to pass this year. “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good,” she said.

Among the proposals in LB 50:

Limit habitual criminal enhancements for offenses that do not involve violence, sex or guns.

Form a sentencing task force to suggest reforms.

Create pilot projects concerning use of assistant probation officers,  provide incentives to engage in programming and set up telehealth portals for mental health care.

Allow parole for the oldest inmates, under some circumstances.

Create mandatory “windows” for parole eligibility, thus giving all inmates an incentive to participate in programming and avoid jam-outs.