Early releases to relieve prison overcrowding draw praise, and fire

Sen. Bob Krist listens to a critic of his prison proposals (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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January 17, 2018 - 5:48pm

Releasing inmates sooner could ease Nebraska’s prison overcrowding, or it could threaten public safety. The Legislature’s Judiciary Committee heard conflicting views Wednesday, as lawmakers also discussed voter ID and taxes.


Sen. Bob Krist told the hearing he’s been watching Nebraska prisons for about 7 years, served on various legislative oversight committees, and read the reports they issued. But he says they all sound about the same. “There’s a predominant, or an overabundance of recommendations and findings that are identical year after year after year – or as they say, déjà vu all over again,” Krist complained.

Krist said it’s time to change that, and try new approaches to relieving pressure on the Department of Correctional Services. “We need to get out of the box and think more aggressively about solving the problem that we have confronting us within Corrections," he declared.

To do that, Krist is proposing several bills. One would let people out of prison to get treatment for issues like anger management and substance abuse. Another would release terminally ill or disabled prisoners to settings like hospice. And a third would speed up declaring an overcrowding emergency from the year 2020 to later this year, requiring the Parole Board to reevaluate prisoners for release.

At Wednesday’s Judiciary Committee hearing, prison volunteer John Krejci of Nebraskans for Peace supported Krist’s ideas:

 

In: We need to think outside the box and think more aggressively about solving the problem that we have confronting us within Corrections (the Department of Correctional Services),” Krist said.

Doug Koebernick, inspector general for prisons for the Legislature’s Ombudsman’s Office, was also supportive. Koebernick talked about a terminally ill patient he’d talked to in a nursing unit at the state penitentiary. “We spent a lot of time sitting in that room and he wasn’t able to move around or anything and we talked about how he was just going to lay in this bed for a year or two, and just stare at these white cinderblock walls and the white ceiling. He was not going to be able to really look outside,” Koebernick said.

Corrections Director Scott Frakes opposed Krist’s proposal for medical releases. “This proposal is nearly identical to the existing medical parole statutes, but importantly, this bill does not require the inmate to be parole-eligible,  two, it would allow medical release to apply to  inmates serving a sentence of death or life imprisonment, and three, does not involve the Parole Board in the decision making process,” Frakes said.

And Parole Board Chair Rosalyn Cotton opposed putting pressure on the board to release more prisoners sooner. “The clearest way to increase parole would be for the Parole Board to relax its standards. This cannot be (the) desired outcome, or all we would do is replace an overcrowding emergency with a public safety emergency,” Cotton said.

Krist, who’s said he’ll run for governor as the candidate of a new party against Gov. Pete Ricketts, said there are already robocalls being made saying he wants to release violent criminals. Krist said that’s not what he wants to do, but that he’s trying to spur action to relieve overcrowding sooner than 2020. Meanwhile, the ACLU has sued Nebraska regarding overcrowding, raising the possibility that the courts could order prisoners released.

Also on Wednesday, Sen. John Murante introduced election bills including one requiring a photo ID to vote. Murante said it wouldn’t be hard to get one. “Ninety seven percent of Nebraskans, if this bill passed, will have qualifying identification. To those Nebraskans who do not have qualifying identification under this bill, the State of Nebrasaka will provide identification for them for free, ensuring that not a single person who does not have identification is turned away from the polls,” Murante said.

Similar proposals in recent years have been opposed on grounds that they would suppress votes, particularly among groups like racial minorities who are unlikely to support the Republican Party, which Murante belongs to. Murante says that’s not his goal. And he also says he rejects another argument he’s heard, that there is an amount of voter fraud which is insignificant to the state. He cited a recent race in Virginia that ended in a tie, forcing the winner to be decided by drawing a name out of a hat. Murante said that showed how a single vote could affect which party has control of a legislative chamber.

Also Wednesday, Sen. Tom Briese said he’ll introduce a sweeping tax bill Thursday, the final day for bill introductions. The bill will propose increasing sales, cigarette and income taxes and providing more state aid to schools in order to lower property taxes. Briese said property owners, including farmers, as well as education groups are on board; Gov. Pete Ricketts has rejected the idea of tax increases.

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