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Bills threaten public safety

Bills threaten public safety

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Kleine is Douglas County Attorney. Peterson is Nebraska's attorney general.

The Douglas County Attorney's Office and the Nebraska Attorney General's Office employ dedicated prosecutors who safeguard Nebraskans by prosecuting the most dangerous felons in Omaha and throughout the state.

We are extremely concerned about three policies advanced by the Legislature last week that undermine public safety by design: fast-tracked parole eligibility by the "one-third rule," elimination of most mandatory minimum sentences, and the dramatic reduction in our ability to prosecute habitual criminals.

Last year, the Legislature enacted Legislative Bill 907, which found that "a need exists to closely examine the criminal justice system of the State of Nebraska in order to increase public safety while concurrently reducing correctional spending." A working group was commissioned to coordinate with the Council of State Governments (CSG) to produce solutions that "reduce correctional spending, decrease recidivism and increase public safety."

The CSG issued a 30-page final report in January with 15 policy recommendations. The Judiciary Committee, spurred by Sen. Ernie Chambers, has deviated from these recommendations to create a so-called "crime package" that is inconsistent with the stated goal of increasing public safety.

The proposed "one-third sentencing rule" significantly reduces the time in which convicted felons are eligible for parole.

Under current law, if a judge sets a sentence of 40 to 50 years for a first-degree sexual assault, the rapist is parole eligible in 20 years.

Under the "one-third rule," the Legislature requires the judge to set a minimum sentence of no more than 33 percent of the maximum. This means that a judge would be required to set a minimum sentence in a first-degree sexual assault case of no more than 16 2/3 years, thus making the inmate eligible for parole in just over eight years due to the operation of the good-time law.

While parole eligibility does not necessarily mean release, this legislation requires judges to dramatically fast-track parole eligibility for all criminals. The "one-third rule" may have been recommended by the criminal defense attorneys and supported by the ACLU, but it was not recommended by the CSG.

It undermines public safety, and it should be removed from both LB 605 and any other consideration by the Legislature.

Sen. Chambers' LB 173 further undermines public safety by removing mandatory minimums for Class IC and Class ID felonies and severely limiting the crimes for which one can be convicted as a habitual criminal.

Crimes classified as IC and ID felonies under current law include: use of a firearm to commit a felony; possession of a firearm by a felon; drive-by shootings; distribution of large amounts of cocaine, heroin or methamphetamine; making or distributing child pornography; and child enticement for purposes of sex.

These are crimes for which an offender should serve time in prison, and that is what a mandatory minimum sentence ensures.

LB 173 removes the guarantee that those who commit gun crimes will do prison time.

Removing mandatory minimums for gun crimes defies common sense and severely undercuts our ability to combat gang-related gun violence in Omaha.

Removal of the mandatory-minimum terms would have a detrimental effect on public safety by potentially allowing the worst-of-the-worst offenders to return to Nebraska communities in a shorter period of time or avoid prison entirely.

Similarly, the habitual criminal law is used to deal with career felons who repeatedly commit crimes even after being sent to prison on at least two occasions. This affords judges and prosecutors the ability to enhance a third felony sentence with a 10-or 25-year mandatory minimum depending upon the severity of the felony.

If LB 173 passes, prosecutors will lose the ability to ensure that habitual criminals who commit the following crimes remain behind bars for a significant period no matter how many repeat convictions: attempted murder, second-and third-degree sexual assault, domestic assault, burglary, child abuse resulting in death, and making or distributing child pornography.

We, as criminal prosecutors, ask that the Legislature stay within the recommendations of the CSG final report, as it addresses prison overcrowding.

The CSG has been involved in assisting several states to correct overcrowding problems.

The proposed one-third rule and LB 173 far exceed the CSG recommendations and do so at the cost of public safety. We urge Omahans and Nebraskans to take notice and demand that any prison reform does not come at the expense of public safety.

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