LINCOLN – As we approach the final days of the 2022 legislative session, the Nebraska Unicameral has the opportunity to deliver smart criminal justice reforms that will enhance public safety and benefit all Nebraskans. These changes will allow us to better manage our inmate population and provide modern resources to prepare offenders for life after time served—without compromising public safety.
However, there are a small subset of soft-on-crime reforms that would have a large, negative impact. Senator Steve Lathrop, Chair of the Judiciary Committee, is holding reasonable policies hostage to promote four soft-on-crime measures that would jeopardize public safety.
Last year, the Nebraska Criminal Justice Reinvestment Working Group considered ways to better protect public safety and manage Nebraska’s inmate population. The group looked at data collected from Nebraska’s criminal justice system and analyzed by the Crime and Justice Institute (CJI). After many discussions, the group reached consensus around seventeen recommendations. However, there were four other proposals included in the report that did not receive consensus approval.
Senator Lathrop has decided he doesn’t want to work on the 80% of reforms our group agrees upon. Instead, he’s focused on the four non-consensus items. Most of these policies are complete non-starters for anyone looking to serve victims of crime and promote public safety.
One policy item would limit the use of consecutive sentences. This means someone could commit three crimes on the same day, and serve time for just one crime. This would handcuff a judge’s ability to issue a sentence appropriate for the crimes committed. The limitation on consecutive sentences isn’t even tied to overly harsh sentencing. CJI’s own analysis found that judges’ use of consecutive sentences has remained flat over the last decade, and the median time served for those incarcerated on a consecutive sentence has remained unchanged. Furthermore, Nebraska already has a very generous “good time” law which reduces most sentences by half.
Two other policies would soften penalties for drug crimes. One would end mandatory minimum sentences, including for drug dealers, while the other would reclassify all drug possession offenses as misdemeanors.
With our broken Southern border, drugs have been flooding into the U.S. from Mexico during the Biden-Harris Administration. In January, U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported a 1,066% increase in the amount of fentanyl confiscated in South Texas in the 2021 fiscal year. We’ve seen a staggering increase in Nebraska, as well. Last year, Omaha DEA seized 26 kilograms of fentanyl. That’s more than ten times the amount seized in 2020, and it’s the equivalent of 13 million lethal doses. Lincoln and Omaha have seen a spike in overdoses as our entire nation battles the scourge of fentanyl on our streets. Weakening penalties for drug dealing will only increase the spread of these deadly substances throughout Nebraska.
For drug possession offenses, incarceration is typically the last resort. It’s common for drug possession offenders to be given the opportunity to attend drug court, a diversion program, plead to a misdemeanor offense, or receive a sentence of probation. The policy Senator Lathrop is pushing would limit a person on their 10th offense for possession of hard drugs to a misdemeanor.
The fourth non-consensus proposal would let elderly criminals out of jail early. Inmates incarcerated for serious and violent crimes—like first degree sexual assault or sexual assault on a child—should not be released from prison after just 15 years simply because of their age.
We have seen many cases in Nebraska over the years where older inmates have been released from prison and gone on to reoffend. For example, Laddie Dittrich was originally convicted of burglary and first-degree murder in 1973 for his involvement in the stabbing death of an Omaha man. He received a life sentence. In April 2013, Dittrich was pardoned, and his sentence was commuted. Dittrich was paroled in May 2014 at the age of 68. Just six months later, Dittrich was arrested for third-degree sexual assault on a child.
Letting violent criminals out of prison early simply because of their age would be a disservice to the victims of crime who deserve justice and would put Nebraskans at risk.
The bulk of these non-consensus proposals should be outright abandoned. As they’re currently written, all of them should be.
Instead, the Legislature should pursue the seventeen reforms that the working group agreed upon. These include measures to improve access to mental healthcare for individuals on parole or probation; provide transitional housing for Nebraskans recently released from prison looking to make a fresh start; and increase the availability of problem-solving courts.
These are a few examples of the many smart criminal justice reforms everyone can unite behind. The 2022 session only has a few weeks remaining. Now is not the time to tie up the Unicameral with divisive proposals that would weaken public safety, especially not at the expense of these common-sense measures.
Now is the time for action, not antics, on public safety.
Nebraska already has the lowest incarceration rate of any surrounding state. Senators can make smart criminal justice reforms this session to further address the capacity of our corrections system. I encourage you to contact your state senator to let them know your thoughts on these soft-on-crime policies. You can find their contact information at nebraskalegislature.gov.