Helmet repeal fails; prison reform changes considered

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March 23, 2015 - 5:42pm

An attempt to repeal Nebraska’s motorcycle helmet law failed Monday in the Legislature. And the Judiciary Committee is making last-minute changes before sending prison reform proposals to the full Legislature for debate.

It was the 14th attempt to repeal or weaken the law Nebraska passed in 1988 requiring motorcyclists to wear a helmet. And it ended as the previous 13 had, in failure.

Once again, one of the main arguments advanced by repeal supporters was by requiring helmets, Nebraska is missing out on money motorcycle riders would otherwise spend passing through the state en route to the annual motorcycle rally in Sturgis, South Dakota. Sen. Tyson Larson of O’Neill said the state’s appeal to tourists was being undermined by resistance to the repeal bill, LB31. "’Nebraska Nice’ is not happening on LB31. ‘Cause we don’t want you here. You’re not willing to wear a helmet? We don’t want you. Go around us," Larson said.

Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks denied supporters of the law are trying to drive motorcyclists away. Instead, she said they’re concerned about the costs of providing health care to unhelmeted motorcyclists who might be injured in crashes. "We want everybody to visit our state and see our beautiful state and ride through it. But I would also add that because we want you, we don’t necessarily want to assume your risk that you’re willing to assume, which would then would cost our state a great deal of money," she said.

With repeal opponents filibustering against the bill, sponsoring Sen. Dave Bloomfield of Hoskins moved to invoke cloture – to stop debate and vote on the bill. Twenty-four senators voted for the motion, while 18 voted against it. But cloture requires votes from two-thirds of the 49-member Legislature, or 33 senators. So the move failed, killing the repeal effort for the year.

Meanwhile, the Judiciary

To see an edition of Capitol Conversations with Sen. Kate Bolz, click here. For Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Les Seiler, click here.

Committee met to discuss changes in several prison reform bills it plans to send to the full Legislature for debate. The bills would establish an Inspector General to investigate complaints about how the prisons are run. They would also change the sentences for many crimes. Omaha Sen. Bob Krist says crimes that currently incur sentences of between 1 and 20 years could have those sentences changed to between 0 and 20 years. "The whole reason for that, obviously, is to allow the judge the discretion not to send them automatically to prison," he said.

Another change would be for sentences with a minimum and maximum number of years in prison, the minimum could be no more than one-third of the maximum. For example, for a crime that carries a maximum sentence of 12 years, the minimum could be no more than four years. Pansing Brooks said that would make prisoners eligible for parole earlier. "What happens at that point is the Parole Board comes in and says you have to do X, Y and Z before we even consider you for parole. And this allows the prisoner to be able to take the programming. It also incentivized them to take the programming, rather than just jamming out," she said.

Jamming out refers to simply waiting until a sentence is finished and getting out of prison without going through the parole process.

Another change in the prison legislation would require the Department of Correctional Services to evaluate whether prisoners are mentally ill and dangerous before releasing them. Some critics say prison overcrowding led the department to release hundreds of prisoners too early. Lincoln Sen. Kate Bolz was asked if the new evaluations might not increase overcrowding pressures. Bolz said no – it will increase transparency about prisoners with mental health problems. "If that transparency illustrates to us that we have a significant problem with dangerous people in our society, and that increases pressure for a variety of solutions and responses, I think that’s a good thing. I think that’s the kind of thing that prevents future circumstances such as we had with Nikko Jenkins," Bolz said.

Jenkins was convicted of killing four people in Omaha in 2013 after being released from prison despite warnings by some mental health professionals. The Judiciary committee has not yet taken final action on the bills.



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