Abolishing mandatory minimums debated; Sandhills wind power moratorium stuck in committee

March 7, 2017, 5:31 a.m. ·

Many senators were away as the Legislature debated mandatory minimum sentences (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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Mandatory minimum sentences would be abolished for some crimes, under a bill being debated in the Nebraska Legislature. And it looks like chances have dimmed for a proposed two-year moratorium on the development of wind farms in the Sandhills.

Sen. Ernie Chambers is sponsoring the bill to do away with mandatory minimum sentences for some felonies, including selling drugs and unlawful possession of a deadly weapon.

Chambers argued that requiring people convicted of those crimes to serve a minimum of three to five years before becoming eligible for parole gives prosecutors too much power and eliminates the incentive to try and get out earlier by behaving in prison “These are some of the most pernicious types of penalties that you can have. We want people taken off the streets who’ve committed crimes. We want competent, vigorous prosecutions. But we do not want to let the law be distorted and used in a way that is not intended. We don’t want the jails filled up just because space is there,” Chambers said.

Sen. Laura Ebke, chairwoman of the Judiciary Committee, supported the bill. Ebke said under the current system, inmates may choose to simply wait out their sentences, rather than seeking earlier parole and being supervised after release. “Nobody is justifying any of these acts. No one is saying that any of these acts are good things that shouldn’t receive some level of punishment,” Ebke said. “But what we are saying is that having a mandatory minimum, especially in the case of somebody who committed a relatively minor offense -- a one-time shot --that maybe requiring them to stay in prison for three or five years without any supervision might be a problem.”

And Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks said if the mandatory minimums are abolished, judges will be able to use their discretion when sentencing people to prison. “I’ve had judges contacting me saying there are instances where they are not heinous crimes, but because of the charge, they have to file the mandatory minimum. That’s shackling our judges. That’s deciding that our judges and our judicial system is not capable of making the determination of what is the most appropriate sentence for people about to be sentenced,” Pansing Brooks said.

Sen. Steve Halloran opposed the bill. Halloran argued the problem is not mandatory minimums, but rather, the overly broad range of sentences available for a particular crime, ranging from 3 or 5 years to up to 50 years. “I trust judges. And I know it’s been said that we need to give them discretion, and indeed we do. But sometimes I think we afford them too much discretion. I think sometimes we don’t narrowly define enough within the law of sentencing guidelines for time,” Halloran said.

Sen. Mike Hilgers also opposed the bill, on grounds of public safety. “These are very serious crimes. And while we don’t want to have individuals who can be rehabilitated who might benefit and their families might benefit from having a reduced sentence, there are other individuals who the opposite would be true,” Hilgers said.

For much of the debate, only about one-third of the 49 senators were present, while the rest were out at committee meetings or elsewhere. That led some supporters of the bill to charge senators had already made up their minds, and were not paying attention to the debate. Debate is scheduled to continue Wednesday.

During one of those committee meetings Tuesday, there was a move to kill Sen. Tom Brewer’s proposed two-year moratorium on development of wind farms in the Sandhills. Wind power proposals there have been controversial, with supporters saying they represent clean power and economic development, while opponents say they threaten the fragile ecosystem and unspoiled views.

In the Natural Resources Committee, senators voted 5-3 against killing the bill. Sens. Rick Kolowski, John McCollister and Dan Quick voted to kill the bill, while Sens. Joni Albrecht, Bruce Bostelman, Suzanne Geist, Lynne Walz and Committee Chairman Dan Hughes were opposed. So the bill remains alive, but stuck in committee.

Brewer said he would try to get it out. “I would like to make one more run at talking to the members of the committee to see if there’s an amendment, if there’s something that would help them decide that it was worthy of bringing out of committee,” he said.

Chairman Hughes said he doesn’t think the bill is likely to move this year. “I do not. I don’t believe Sen. Brewer is going to prioritize that bill. So, without a priority designation, I don’t see movement on that. Now someone else may be able to prioritize it, but the clock is ticking,” Hughes said.

Senators each get to name one bill their priority for the year, moving it to the top of the list for debate. Brewer said if he had known that would be a factor, he would have gladly made the moratorium bill his priority instead of the one he picked, merging the Division of Veterans Homes into the Department of Veterans Affairs.

But Brewer said this is not the end of his efforts on wind. “I guess if worse comes to worst, it gets shelved for a year, and we come back with a vengeance next year, and that will be my priority bill,” he said.

Also on Tuesday, the Department of Health and Human Services announced it was cutting 39 positions at the Beatrice State Developmental Center and 31 in its Bridges program near the Hastings Regional Center. Both serve developmentally disabled people.

The population at the Beatrice facility has been dropping, and 481 employees now serve 110 residents there. HHS Division of Developmental Disabilities Director Courtney Miller described the staff reductions as “rightsizing” pending a public hearing next month and final report on the Beatrice center’s future in June. She said the cuts in Hastings were to comply with federal regulations requiring more home and community-based services. The cuts are expected to save about $2 million a year, but Miller said that could change as people who use the services in Hastings begin to use other programs.