Sen. Brad Ashford (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
The Nebraska Legislature gave first-round approval Wednesday to a package of prison reforms, and to borrowing to speed up highway construction.
Nebraska’s prisons are at 156 percent of capacity, and ACLU Nebraska is threatening a lawsuit based on the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop said the state needs to do something. "It may seem unseemly or inappropriate that a person that’s confined for some kind of felonious conduct would ever be able to bring a lawsuit against the State of Nebraska. I get that," Lathrop said. "But the fact of the matter is that people who are confined it penitentiaries across this country are entitled to a certain level of treatment within the prisons."
Lathrop said a court could order the state to start releasing prisoners or build a new prison. Omaha Sen. Brad Ashford, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said a new prison could cost $100 million to $150 million to build, and $30 million a year to operate.
Ashford said the prison reform bill would help avoid that, by diverting people from going to prison in the first place, and helping them avoid being sent back after they’ve been released. The bill would spend almost $15 million next year for programs including expanded mental health treatment, vocational training, and new reporting centers for people on probation.
It also tries to help ex-prisoners get jobs by prohibiting public employers from asking about their criminal history before deciding if they meet minimum employment qualifications.
Sen. Jim Scheer of Norfolk suggested that conflicts with laws prohibiting schools from hiring people with certain criminal records. Omaha Sen. Pete Pirsch also questioned the implications. "Would this apply to, for instance, publicly-run daycares where you would not be able to ask about child abuse -- have you been convicted previously of child abuse? Or nursing homes with respect to vulnerable charges, or treasurers’ offices with respect to prior instances of theft or anything of that sort?" Pirsch asked.
Lincoln Sen. Bill Avery said the bill does not force the hiring of anyone without a criminal background check. "It does not do that at all. It says you can’t use the criminal background as the first question asked. You have to give them an opportunity to establish their credentials first, and then you can inquire into a criminal history," Avery said.
Ashford noted that other prison reform efforts are also underway. He said he expects the multi-state Council of State Governments to recommend reforms in how Nebraska sentences criminals. "This will be successful. Working with CSG and this Legislature in the next two to three to four years, we will totally reform and revamp our prison system to reduce our prison population and make our population safer. I absolutely guarantee (it)," said Ashford, who will be out of the Legislature next year due to term limits.
Senators voted 36-0 first round approval for the bill.
Wednesday afternoon, senators debated a proposal to authorize borrowing up to $200 million via bonding for highway construction. Sen. Annette Dubas, chairwoman of the Transportation and Telecommunciations Committee and chief sponsor of the bill, said it makes sense to borrow at low interest rates, rather than wait while road construction costs increase.
Dubas said the money would be used for projects that have already been identified for completion using funds set aside by earmarking a quarter cent of the state sales tax. "I view this as a way of accelerating those projects, moving them along, and probably more a chance for the state to save money rather than spend more money to get these projects moving," she said.
Senators including Dave Bloomfield of Hoskins opposed the proposal. "Nebraska’s always been a pay as you go state. I think we ought to stay that course," he said. "Granted, we could move forward more quickly on some projects. But if I went out and borrowed fifty, sixty thousand dollars I could also buy a new pickup real quick. That doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do," Bloomfield said.
Senators voted 34-14 to cut off a filibuster against the bill, then voted 32-14 to give it first round approval.