Frakes offers condolences for prison deaths; sentence reductions, medical marijuana advance

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May 12, 2015 - 5:50pm

As cleanup from Sunday’s riot at the Tecumseh prison gets underway, Nebraska lawmakers advanced sentencing reductions to decrease prison overcrowding. And senators gave first round approval to a proposal to legalized medical marijuana.

Director of Corrections Scott Frakes led off his comments at a news conference with a gesture, and a pledge. "I’ll begin by sending my condolences to the family members of the two men that were killed during the disturbance. We will fully investigate these crimes and all others committed during the disturbance and will pursue prosecution to the full extent of the law," he said.

The Department of Correctional Services says inmates Donald Peacock and Shon Collins were found dead at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution after authorities retook control from inmates who took over parts of the prison Sunday.

Monday, Frakes said he did not think the prison was understaffed. Tuesday, he was less definitive, and acknowledged problems with the way the prison is staffed. "While today I’m not clear as to whether or not there is truly enough staff within the facility, what we do have an issue with is those places where there’s vacancies that we then fill with whatever available relief staff there are, or with overtime, which is certainly high at Tecumseh," he said.

Leaders of the NAPE/AFSCME union representing workers at Tecumseh say staff there are often required to work 16 hours in a row, and veteran staff are paid no more than newcomers, contributing to high turnover at the prison. Asked if guards should be paid more, Gov. Pete Ricketts said that will be studied as part of a strategic plan Frakes will deliver sometime this fall. That plan will also consider whether or not the state needs to build a new prison to alleviate overcrowding. Nebraska’s prisons currently hold 59 percent more people than they were designed to hold, although at Tecumseh, Frakes said, overcrowding is only about 6 percent.

Meanwhile, lawmakers gave second round approval to several proposals reducing sentences for various crimes.

One set of proposals would reduce penalties for nonviolent offenses ranging from forgery to theft, and create a presumption that people convicted of those crimes would go on probation rather than to prison.

Another would scale back the use of so-called habitual criminal provisions. Currently, sentences can be enhanced for people convicted of three felonies. As amended, the bill by Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers would require the third of those be a violent crime in order to have the sentence enhanced.

Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks supported the change. She gave the example of someone whose third felony was for theft of property worth more than $1,500. Under current law, she said, that person could be sentenced to 10 years for stealing a laptop computer.

"What is it that we use prisons for? My belief is that we need to be using them to get the dangerous people off of the streets. Yes, we need to deal also with people who are stealing from us, and we have to deal with all sorts of issues in that. But to put them away for 10 years?" she asked.

Sen. Jim Scheer of Norfolk objected to dropping enhanced penalties for so-called white collar crimes like forgery or embezzlement. "I’ve known too many people that have had very successful businesses and trusted their financial dealings to an individual, as a bookkeeper, as an accountant. And yes indeed, they were embezzled from. They not only lost their business, they lost their livelihood, they lost their life savings. To me that is not a victimless crime," he said.

After several hours of debate, senators gave the bill second round approval on a vote of 25-16. Ricketts has talked about his opposition to the original version of the bill. If he vetoes it, it would take 30 votes to override the veto.

And lawmakers gave first round approval to a bill legalizing medical marijuana. Among those speaking against the bill was Sen. Merv Riepe of Omaha. "I am concerned …the FDA has not approved marijuana for medical use. The FDA has not found any such product to be safe or effective for the treatment of any disease or condition," he said.

Sen. Tommy Garrett of Bellevue, chief sponsor of the bill, said with the federal government not acting, it is time for the states to act.

"Colleagues, 24 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico have gone ahead of us. They’ve weighed the conditions and everything. They’re not stupid. They have the same compassion and the same care and concern that you all have. And 12 other states are doing it, Garrett said. "I can’t argue why it’s taken the FDA so long to do this, or the DEA. But colleagues, Nebraskans are begging for help. Let’s help them."

Garrett promised to work with senators who have concerns about the bill before it comes up for a second round of debate and voting. Senators then voted 27-12 first round approval of the bill.

And in other Nebraska news, Gov. Ricketts said he accepted with regret the resignation of Dr. Joseph Ascierno as the state’s chief medical officer on Friday. Ascierno was confirmed by the Legislature on a second try last week after falling short on the first vote. Ricketts said he tried to persuade him to stay, but Ascierno was intent on leaving.

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