Senators on the Legislature's Judiciary Committee heard testimony Wednesday on several bills that could address the state's continual problem of crowding in its prisons.
Those bills concerned restoring good time for prisoners who lose it because of misbehavior, the moving of some inmates to county jails and changing membership requirements for the Board of Parole.
A bill (LB114) introduced by Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue, who is a former corrections officer, would keep the Department of Correctional Services from taking away more than two years of good time as a result of an inmate incident. And it would prevent the practice of stacking charges and misconduct reports.
With the bill, an inmate could lose up to six months' good time for a violation not involving assault, and up to two years for an event involving assault or a serious injury to a person. Several incidents could occur, but add up to only one event.
The bill also would allow the head of a prison to restore any good time an inmate has lost as long as the department director agreed.
The department now uses a practice of designating good time that cannot be restored, usually for assault, Blood said. Current state law has no stipulation that prevents lost good time from being restored.
Between 2014 and 2017, the years of good time restored has been cut by more than half, she said.
She is not advocating allowing violators out sooner than they should be, she said.
"What I am wanting to see is people who have lost good time and are wanting to get it back, and who see the incentive to work hard and practice exemplary behavior and possibly earn that good time back," she said.
Blood said one of her concerns is that the department is trying to build its way out of the overcrowding problem by continuing to add more beds.
Her bill could help ease prison crowding by allowing people to get out when they are supposed to get out, she said. And it could help make the facility safer for those who work there.
When a staff member is assaulted, the inmate should be held accountable, she said, without exception. But young people who enter prison at age 18, who do stupid things in prison because of their immature brains, are more mature 10 years later and may be trying to do the right things to get out of prison.
"Part of corrections isn't just about putting people away. It's about making them better citizens, because one day, they're going to be our neighbors, whether we like it or not," she said. "We have to give them some way to believe that they can change their behavior ... and use that as a path to being a better citizen."
A bill (LB108), introduced by Lincoln Sen. Kate Bolz, addressed continuing to contract with county jails to house up to 150 state inmates on a temporary basis. It also would make offenders eligible for county jail placement within one year of parole or release eligibility or for those requiring community-based or minimum-security housing.
Also, the department could place offenders only if the county jail had capacity and agreed to meet prerelease programming requirements.
Corrections Director Scott Frakes opposed the bill, saying placing more requirements and restrictions on the county jail process infringes on the ability to safely and effectively manage the inmate population.
Omaha Sen. John McCollister's bill (LB277) would change the makeup and appointment of the independent Nebraska Board of Parole, which has five members, appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Legislature, who are full-time employees. They serve six-year terms, with no term limits.
The board must have at least one female member, one with professional experience in corrections and one who is an ethnic minority. The governor selects the chair.
With the bill, starting in 2020, one member would have professional experience in treating mental illness or substance abuse; members would be limited to one term of eight years, appointed to a six-year term initially with the option of an additional two-year term; and the board would appoint its own chair for a period of four years.
Marshall Lux, recently retired Nebraska ombudsman, sent a letter supporting LB277 as possibly the most important measure to come before the committee this year.
It would strengthen and modernize the board to have a member with experience in the mental health field, he said, and the changes would guarantee the board's independence from inappropriate political pressure.
"I long ago concluded that the Board of Parole has the most difficult, and the most often misunderstood job in state government," Lux said.
It must make difficult, complex and critical decisions, balancing justice and potential risk to the community.
"If we want our Board of Parole members to make optimal decisions, then we must provide them with the structural independence to make those decisions unimpeded by any form of undue influence or inappropriate outside pressure," Lux said.