Prison reform, motorcycle helmets, NU presidency discussed in Legislature

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February 6, 2014 - 5:20pm

Sen. Brad Ashford discusses prison alternatives before the Judiciary Committee. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Proposals for prison reform, repealing Nebraska’s motorcycle helmet law, and the presidency of the University of Nebraska highlighted discussion in the Legislature Thursday.

With Nebraska prisons over 150 percent of capacity, Omaha Sen. Brad Ashford presented two proposals for reform to a hearing of the Judiciary Committee. One calls for intensive supervision of everyone released from prison, to try to keep them from coming back. It would cost about $25 million next year for things like probation officers and centers across the state for ex-offenders to report to.

Ashford said it would be worth it. “Somewhere between 35 and 50 percent of the 5,000 inmates who are incarcerated in our system walk out of our system not on parole, no supervision, in many cases nowhere to go, no transition services, no mental health services whatsoever. That is absolutely a recipe for disaster,” he said.

The other bill would spend about $15 million next year for programs for both current and released prisoners on violence reduction, anger management, job training and housing. Jim Vokal of the Platte Institute supported the proposals. He said just over 50 percent of inmates are in prison for violent and sexual offenses, many were in for nonviolent offenses involving drugs and theft. He said they could be handled better than by building another prison to send them to.

But Lincoln Sen. Colby Coash said sometimes, judges have no choice in cases where people who have been released have committed new violations. “All of a sudden the judge is sitting there with someone that, I would agree with you, is not violent but the judge is saying ‘Well, probation didn’t work, you violated it, put you on some supervision, that didn’t work. What else do you want me to do inmate, or offender? Other than put you to jail for a while, because everything we’ve tried isn’t working.’”

The Nebraska County Attorneys Association supported the ideas in concept, but said they should be amended to include recognition of the need for justice for victims.

The Judiciary Committee took no immediate action on the bills.

Earlier Thursday, senators began debating yet another attempt to repeal Nebraska’s mandatory motorcycle helmet law. Sen. Dave Bloomfield of Hoskins wants to make it optional for riders over 21 who wear eye protection.

Bloomfield said none of Nebraska’s neighbors, except Missouri, require helmets. He said his bill, LB393, allows freedom of choice. “LB393 reflects my strong belief that as free Americans and free Nebraskans, adults should be able to reflect decisions that affect their lives, and do not interfere with the lives of others,” he said.

Scottsbluff Sen. John Harms opposed the bill, referring to high medical bills for uninsured motorcyclists injured in accidents. “I’ve heard this argument for eight years, that they should have the freedom of choice. But when it costs us as taxpayers to pick up the bill, that’s when I begin to say ‘Maybe we ought to look at this very carefully. Maybe it isn’t freedom of choice any longer. Maybe it’s a choice that we have to make as senators in this room to protect our own taxpayers,’” Harms said.

Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop said deaths have increased in states that repealed helmet laws. He promised a filibuster, which would stretch debate into early next week at least.

Earlier Thursday, controversy flared over a possible job for Gov. Dave Heineman after he leaves office. Omaha Sen. Burke Harr introduced a bill prohibiting officials who can appoint members of governing boards from getting jobs at institutions governed by those boards for two years after leaving office.

The governor has the power to appoint University of Nebraska Regents in case of vacancy. Harr said he understands Heineman is considering the job of University of Nebraska president being vacated by J.B. Milliken. So even though he said his bill would not take effect soon enough to influence that possibility, Harr asked to withdraw his proposal.

“I think it is good policy. But my fear is that this is going to become about the governor. And that’s exactly what I don’t want,” Harr said.

Several senators objected, and Columbus Sen. Paul Schumacher asked Harr how many cosponsors he would need to change his mind. Harr answered 10, and in a short time, 12 more senators signed up. Harr then withdrew his request.

Asked about the governor’s interest in the NU presidency, spokeswoman Jen Rae Wang said “The Governor is focused on providing tax relief for hard working Nebraska citizens, and has no response to what transpired in the Legislature.”

The discussion came on the same day as the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee heard a bill to exempt the names of candidates for university president from public records laws.

NU Regent Tim Clare said confidentiality would produce a better pool of candidates. Media groups and open government advocates opposed the proposal.




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