LINCOLN — Omaha's mayor and police chief told state senators Wednesday that Nebraska needs to stop giving furloughs and good time to prisoners convicted of gun offenses.
But they failed to persuade Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers, who vowed to fight the furlough bill because it would likely lead to more prison overcrowding.
“I'm not going to allow the Department of Corrections to become a dumping ground for every politician,” said Chambers, a member of the Judiciary Committee.
Mayor Jim Suttle's testimony Wednesday had another political layer because Omaha Sen. Brad Ashford, the Judiciary Committee chairman, is one of several candidates running to unseat the mayor. The incumbent and challenger were formally polite to each other, in contrast to some testy exchanges between Suttle and Chambers.
Reining in prison furloughs has been Suttle's goal since the Sept. 16 fatal shooting of furloughed prisoner Jermaine Lucas by police responding to gunfire near a north Omaha night club. Lucas, 29, was a known gang member with an extensive criminal record who was out on a 48-hour furlough while serving time as a felon in possession of a firearm.
“It is unacceptable to put our citizens' lives at risk on a regular basis in order to keep costs down in the state prison system,” Suttle said.
In addition to prohibiting furloughs for those convicted of weapons charges or multiple felonies, Legislative Bill 379 would make the same category of prisoner ineligible to receive good time. As the term implies, most prisoners who maintain good behavior can get time subtracted from the maximum years on their sentence.
Under Nebraska's sentencing guidelines, many inmates become eligible for parole when they serve half their minimum sentence and are released after serving half of the maximum. Some get out on furlough before they even reach their parole eligibility date. For that reason, Suttle referred to LB 379 as a “truth in sentencing” bill that will help Omaha address gun violence.
Ashford pointed out that state law already requires mandatory minimum sentences for certain firearm offenses, including those contained in LB 379. Such inmates must serve the minimum years before they become eligible for parole or apply their good time.
Chambers said there is nothing “untruthful” about the state's sentencing guidelines, which are spelled out in statute.
“So I don't know what you're talking about,” he said to the mayor.
With about 4,600 inmates, the state's prison system currently stands at about 145 percent of capacity. If the bill passes, the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services estimated it will add 1,000 inmates by 2026, guaranteeing the need for an additional prison.
But Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer said the bill would affect just 1 percent of criminals who commit violent offenses.
“It becomes a massive violation of public trust when we arrest this offender only to have them re-enter society and reoffend,” he said.
The bill could be amended to require certain violent inmates to serve at least 70 percent of their maximum sentences before release, as is done in Iowa and other surrounding states, Schmaderer said.
“If you look at Omaha compared to say Des Moines or Council Bluffs ... we're about 61 times more likely to be a victim of a homicide or a robbery,” he said.
Also testifying in support of the bill was the Omaha Police Officer's Association and the Nebraska League of Municipalities.
Corrections Director Bob Houston opposed the good time provision of the bill because it would remove an incentive that helps maintain safety in the prison system. Houston also argued that furloughs reduce reoffense rates by helping inmates who are going to be released make the transition to life outside of prison.
He pointed out that the department responded to the Lucas shooting by ending extended furloughs for violent offenders and requiring an inmate to be within one year of release before becoming eligible for furlough. In the past, inmates could become eligible within three years of release.
Corrections also is doing a better job of providing lists of furloughed inmates to law enforcement departments.
Also testifying against the bill were the Nebraska Criminal Defense Attorneys Association and two family members of inmates serving time for gun crimes.
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