A little over a year ago, although arrests and reported crimes in Nebraska were continuing a decade-long decline, the state’s corrections system was badly overcrowded (at 159% of capacity, with estimates predicting 170% by 2020), with prisoners coming into the system faster than they were being released.
So the state’s new governor, Pete Ricketts (R), and Nebraska’s unicameral legislature decided to put major emphasis on finding long-term solutions, and criminal justice issues dominated last year’s legislative agenda.
They did not always see eye-to-eye: the legislature passed a measure (Legislative Bill 268) abolishing the death penalty and overturned the governor’s veto. The governor, formerly the CEO of Ameritrade and part of the wealthy family that owns the Chicago Cubs baseball team, then helped fund a ballot referendum seeking to reverse the death penalty repeal. Last summer and fall, 12% of the state’s voters signed petitions to retain the death penalty; that issue will be before the state’s voters this November.
But while legislators and the governor were fighting over the death penalty, a bipartisan effort passed a wide-ranging overhaul of the state’s corrections system, Legislative Bill 605, also known as the Justice Reinvestment Act. Approval on final passage, after negotiation with state prosecutors, came without a dissenting vote, and the governor signed it on May 28. At the signing ceremony, Ricketts said the measure “aims to halt prison population growth,” and also increase the supervision of released prisoners and bring new help for crime victims.
During the previous decade, Nebraska’s corrections spending rose by about 20%, as the number of prisoners went up 19%. Rather than launch an expensive new prison-building campaign to alleviate overcrowding and prepare for increasing numbers of inmates, Nebraska leaders decided to explore other methods for reducing the prison population.
To that end, the legislature set up a 19-member Justice Reinvestment Working Group, which worked with Nebraska interests and drew advice on alternatives from outside groups, including the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments.
As passed, LB 605 aims to save prison space for those convicted of the most dangerous and violent crimes, by mandating probation instead of jail time for most low-level, non-violent offenses and reducing maximum sentences for many offenses. For example, the maximum for being an accessory to a felony was reduced from 20 years to four years.
Additionally, it puts greater focus on the parole process, giving it more resources for new day and evening reporting centers to allow more careful monitoring, with priority efforts concentrated on parolees who committed felonies and are viewed as being at greatest risk of re-offending. The new law also has a fund to help county jails adjust to increases in their average inmate populations, as well as new provisions on crime victim restitution.
The state estimates the new law could shave prison populations by 1,000 over the first five years and avoid $300 million in outlays that might otherwise be needed. One of the law’s lead sponsors points to Georgia, which was able to shut three state prisons after adopting similar measures five years ago.
Legislators have asked state judges for their reaction to how workable the sentencing changes are. The new law just took effect in September and so is still in a shakedown phase; legislators are preparing a package of eight amendments to revise parts of the new law, most likely to tighten maximum sentence reductions for particular crimes.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com, and PrisonLawBlog.com