Criminal justice reform bill goes down in flames after lengthy debate

Nebraska will become ‘the state that won’t listen,’ says Sen. Steve Lathrop
Nebraska State Penitentiary
Posted at 5:50 PM, Apr 06, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-06 18:50:19-04

LINCOLN, Neb. (Nebraska Examiner) — For the second time in seven years, state lawmakers have rejected the advice of national authorities on how to reduce spending on prisons.

 On Wednesday, a filibuster blocked a bill enacting criminal justice reforms developed after a months-long study in conjunction with the Crime and Justice Institute.

The death of Legislative Bill 920, which recommended 21 steps to reduce the state’s nation-leading prison overcrowding, came after debate spread over three days and after hours of negotiating a compromise that never materialized.

Advocates, led by State Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, said the steps represented proven “smart on crime” strategies that have helped dozens of states reduce spending on corrections and prevention of crime.

But opponents, led by Lincoln Sen. Suzanne Geist and Sterling Sen. Julie Slama, argued that some of the steps were soft on crime and threatened public safety.

Biggest disappointment

Lathrop, who has devoted much of his 12-year career in the State Legislature to problems in the state prison system, called the failure of LB 920 his biggest disappointment as a lawmaker.

“We’re going to be known as the state that won’t listen,” Lathrop said. “We brought in people for a data-driven approach, and it was sidetracked by stories of catalytic converters and partisanship.”

Officials with CJI, a division of the nonprofit Community Resources for Justice, said Nebraska becomes only the second state, along with Kentucky, to reject the justice reinvestment steps they have helped a state develop.

At least 35 states have undertaken so-called “justice reinvestment” efforts in recent years to reduce prison spending in conjunction with CJI and the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments.

In 2015, the Justice Center helped Nebraska develop reforms contained in LB 605 that were projected to reduce state prison populations by 1,000 inmates. But state lawmakers, after county prosecutors objected, watered down LB 605, and the changes failed to realize a reduction in prison overcrowding.

Most overcrowded

As a result, Nebraska now has the most overcrowded prison system in the country, holding about 1,700 more inmates than its prisons were designed to house. Staffing emergencies exist at four state prisons, forcing longer shifts to cover the lack of staff and cutbacks in prison recreation and rehabilitation programs. 

Last year, Gov. Pete Ricketts, along with Lathrop and Mike Heavican, the chief justice of the Nebraska Supreme Court, asked CJI to come to the state to dig into data to explain why Nebraska’s prison population continues to increase while other states are seeing declines and why incidents of repeat criminal offenses were rising, not falling.

 In 2020, Nebraska was one of only four states that saw incarceration rates rise. 

New prison: $270 million

Ricketts has proposed building a 1,500-bed new prison, at a cost of $270 million, to replace the State Penitentiary in Lincoln.

Lathrop argued that LB 920 was needed to avoid building a second, equally costly prison. State projections indicate that even if a 1,500-bed prison was built, the state inmate population would still exceed design capacity by 1,300 by the year 2030.

The Omaha senator said legislators either needed to enact reforms that “move the needle” and reduce the inflow of prison inmates or be prepared to spend a half-billion dollars on new prisons.

Lincoln Sen. Anna Wishart called LB 920 a “no brainer” as far as reducing expenditures of state funds.

Omaha Sen. Terrell McKinney said that proposals in the bill — such as making possession of a small amount of drugs a misdemeanor instead of a felony — were essential if the state was to reduce its incarceration rate for blacks, which is 10th highest in the nation.

Geist, who served on the CJI working group along with Lathrop, said Nebraska has one of the lowest incarceration rates in the country and said the answer wasn’t reducing penalties for felons but devoting more resources in prison toward rehabilitation and drug treatment.

She had offered an amendment that contained 15 of the 21 recommendations made through the CJI process, steps she said were “noncontroversial.”

‘Status quo’

But Lathrop said her amendment wouldn’t serve to reduce prison overcrowding and reflected the “status quo.”

Under his proposal, Nebraska was projected to see 1,000 fewer prison inmates by 2030, according to CJI, while Geist’s plan would reduce inmates by 143.

Slama said her objections focused on at least four proposals in Lathrop’s bill.

 One, reducing drug possession crimes from a felony to a misdemeanor, which she said would overcrowd county jails — facilities that she argued were ill-prepared to help someone overcome an addiction. 

Slama said she also objected to efforts to lessen punishments for “smash and grab” burglaries like those seen in California, removing mandatory minimum sentences for certain drug dealers, and requiring judges to justify use of consecutive sentences, which serve to prolong an inmate’s prison term.

Not part of CJI ideas

The senator said she was also opposed to Lathrop’s addition of a clause not recommended by the CJI initiative — one Lathrop said was key to increasing lower-cost parole instead of costly prison incarceration.

The lengthy debate contained a harsh division over whether real negotiations were held on compromises. Lathrop said he kept hearing “no” from Geist and other opponents, while Geist said she offered several alternatives.

Lathrop also complained more than once that opponents weren’t offering alternatives backed by data, but relating “anecdotes” about thefts of catalytic converters and guesses that building a new prison would somehow reduce repeat crimes.

Rehab better for addicts

Proponents of LB 920 argued that reducing penalties for low-level drug offenses was to address addiction, which is better done outside of prison than inside. They also argued that getting more inmates on parole supervision would work to reduce repeat crimes while protecting public safety.

 At the last minute on Wednesday, Lathrop urged opponents to allow the bill to advance to second-round debate so one more round of discussions could be held in hopes of reaching a compromise. He said the step had been encouraged by the governor’s aides.

But the 26-18 vote fell short of the 33 needed to halt a filibuster, with opponents such as Geist and Slama voting “no.”

McKinney said if LB 920 wasn’t passed as proposed, it wasn’t worth passing to “just check the box,” as happened with LB 605.

Geist said the effort to reform criminal justice isn’t over. She pledged to conduct an informal study later this year with a group of four or five senators on both sides of the issue.

The senator said she didn’t think more talks at the end of the 2022 session would be productive after a week of unproductive discussions.

“I didn’t see it happening,” Geist said.

Nebraska Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Nebraska Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Cate Folsom for questions: Follow Nebraska Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

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