Criminal justice reform inches ahead; filibustering continues

May 23, 2023, midnight ·

The Nebraska Legislature in debate Tuesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)
The Nebraska Legislature in debate Tuesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

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The Nebraska Legislature appears to be inching closer to enacting criminal justice reforms, even as Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh continues to slow things down in reaction to restrictions on health care for transgender youth.

Changing how Nebraska handles criminal justice has been a key demand of senators who are opposed to building a new prison. This year, the Legislature gave the go-ahead for a new prison. Now, the question is whether there will be changes to the system that sends people there.

Monday night, senators voted 28-8 first round approval for a bill that aims to make changes. In an interview, Sen. Justin Wayne, chair of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, talked about one of the main goals of the bill.

“The biggest thing is that we're going to streamline parole process and we're going to make sure nobody jams out going forward, and so that's a public safety concern that we're addressing,” Wayne said.

“Jamming out” refers to prisoners serving their full sentences, minus any “good time” for behavior in prison, then being released without any further supervision.

Wayne wants to change that by making prisoners eligible for parole earlier. The way the law stands now, someone serving a maximum sentence of 20 years could jam out with good time after 10, for example. The bill would make that person eligible for parole after 5 years, at which time which they could be released, but under supervision.

Sen. Carolyn Bosn has been negotiating on the bill with Wayne, who’s also been talking to the governor’s and attorney general’s offices. Bosn says there are two schools of thought about the best way for the state to spend its money on criminal justice.

“Is your return on investment better if individuals are supervised and given incentive to participate in programming, or is your public more safe if they are in longer?” Bosn asked, rhetorically, in an interview.

As a former prosecutor, Bosn says she’d be concerned about telling a crime victim that someone sentenced to more than 20 years could be released after only a fraction of that time. Negotiations on that portion of the bill continued Tuesday.

Bosn praised another aspect of the bill.

“The main thing is the problem solving courts, giving individuals an opportunity to go a treatment route versus a incarceration, straight punitive route. So the intent here is build those courts up, increase drug courts, increase mental health courts, increased veterans courts, diversionary programs and things like that,” she said.

Another part of the bill that has provoked some disagreement involves the sentencing of so-called habitual criminals. Currently, if someone has been convicted twice before and commits another crime, they must be sentenced to a minimum of 10 years.

Wayne wants to reduce that to three years, if the current crime for which the person is being sentenced does not involve violence, sex, or guns.

Bosn wants to apply the same standard to the two previous offenses. But she says it looks like there’s a compromise.

“The meeting point that I think we're getting closer to is an agreement that, okay, one of them has to be non-violent non-sexual, non weapon-related…I mean the whole point is to deter habitual criminals’ activities,” she said.

Wayne confirmed that it looks like they’re going to agree to split the difference and require the current offense and at least one of the previous offenses not involve violence, sex or guns, to keep the bill advancing.

“We found a middle ground. We'll end on one of the previous ones being the same, so that's where we ended up right now, and we'll keep it moving,” he said.

And Wayne said he hopes the bill can be scheduled for second-round debate Wednesday afternoon.

Meanwhile in floor debate, Sen. Machaela Cavanaugh continued her three-month’s long effort to slow things down in protest of legislation, passed last week, restricting health treatments for transgender youth.

Tuesday, Cavanaugh slowed down a series of routine appropriations bills. She specifically denounced a comment Gov. Jim Pillen made Monday in response to a question about whether the new law interfering with family decision-making.

“We believe in protecting our kids, making sure that they -- parents and kids -- don't get duped into the silliness that ‘If you do this, you're going to become happy.’ That is absolutely Lucifer at its finest. And we believe this law protects and allows our children to make decisions on their own when they become of age,” Pillen said at the bill-signing ceremony.

Tuesday, Cavanaugh hit back.

“Thank you, Governor Pillen, for your deeply, deeply, ill- informed insults to the parents of Nebraska. You just reminded me why I've been doing what I have been doing for as long as I've been doing it, and why I have to keep doing it,” Cavanaugh said.

And she vowed to keep going, even though the bill she was protesting has now been signed into law.

“Some people are like, ‘Well, why? I mean, it's day 83 (of the 90-day session).Why still filibuster? The bill passed.’ It's Day 83. There's what -- seven days left of session? Well, there's next year, and I am worried about next year and what this body is going to do out of pure pettiness and idiocracy. So the less we pass this year, carries over to next year,” she said.

Bills that have been delayed this year will still be eligible for passage next year.