Mandatory jail for assaulting health care workers debated

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January 31, 2012 - 6:00pm

Requiring jail time for people who assault medical personnel, and lengthening term limits for senators were among proposals discussed in the Nebraska Legislature on Wednesday.

Sen. Steve Lathrop

Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop is proposing mandatory minimum sentences for people who assault health care workers who are performing their duties. He said those workers are particularly vulnerable because they're working closely with people or their family members who are under physical, emotional, or financial stress. Sometimes those people lash out, and Lathrop said knowing they would spend time in jail would be a deterrent.

Critics say there's an ever-growing list of groups seeking special treatment, and health care workers should not be added to it. Omaha Sen. Brenda Council says judges already have the option of sentencing people who assault health care workers to jail, but it should not be required.

Sen. Brenda Council

"There are occasions where people, not thinking and unwittingly, engage in conduct that none of us here would consider appropriate, and regrettably and unfortunately that rises to the level of a crime," Council said. "But we're talking about an emotional setting which may be at the root of it and we're going to subject these individuals to further trauma by charging them with a felony where they would be facing a mandatory minimum sentence."

Grand Island Sen. Mike Gloor was among those supporting the bill, saying assaults occur most frequently in domestic violence cases. And Lathrop said special treatment is justified, comparing the proposal to increased penalties for speeding or drug dealing in school zones. "The idea is that there's something different about this area or these victims. And we do it with police officers. I think what makes the health care provider unique is that they are running towards the assailant, intending to help them, and unarmed and unprepared to deal with an assault," Lathrop said.

The Legislature adjourned for the day without reaching a vote.

On term limits, the Legislature's executive board heard a proposal to allow senators to serve three consecutive four year terms, instead of the current two-term limit. Senator Tom Carlson of Holdrege, sponsor of the proposal, said he doesn't want to do away with term limits. He said their advantages include bringing fresh blood and new ideas into the Legislature, and preventing anyone from making a career of it


Sen. Tom Carlson

But Carlson said term limits have disadvantages, as well. "I think without question the executive branch is more powerful and has more influence. I understand why they wouldn't like to see this changed. I think the lobbyists have more power and influence. I think our legislative staffs have more influence. I think the political parties have more," he said.

Jerry Stilmock, a lobbyists for the volunteer firefighters, fire chiefs, and the Nebraska Bankers Association supported the proposal. He said the higher turnover among lawmakers requires lobbyists to review legislative history with newcomers, rather than having people in the body with that institutional memory. No one testified against the proposal to modify the term limits which were approved by voters in 2000. If lawmakers endorse the proposed change, it would still go to voters this fall.

In another hearing, the Health and Human Services Committee heard testimony on a proposal to deal with problems with Access Nebraska, the state's web and call center-based system for getting social services. Gloor described a letter one constituent got: "It says please call 1-800 at 8:30 a.m. Central time so that we may conduct an interview, and then to add insult to injury we say If you need to change the above date or time, please call 1-800 ' We're pumping letters out here telling people to call at 8:30 when in fact what they're doing is calling into a queue and waiting and waiting and waiting."

Scot Adams of the Department of Health and Human Services said HHS is looking into the problem. "We've begun down that pathway and I haven't gotten to the end of the trail on that one at this point in time I'm not exactly sure if that is in every letter, because that would create its own series of too many calls, or if it's intended as a helpful its usually a little lighter at that time,' Adams said, adding that he would follow through on the question.

Lincoln Sen. Danielle Conrad is proposing that HHS put staff members at 30 community based organizations to give people face-to-face help applying for benefits; Adams opposed that, saying the Department already meets with individuals on request, and the bill would cost too much.




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