Nebraska Unicameral examining prison reform again

State senators are looking at two pieces of potential prison reform legislation this session.
Published: Feb. 6, 2023 at 3:49 PM CST
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LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) -State senators are looking at two pieces of potential prison reform legislation this session. All of this after Governor Jim Pillen announced he would be allocating millions of dollars to finalize funding for a new state penitentiary.

10/11 NOW sat down with State Senator Suzanne Geist and State Senator Justin Wayne to learn more about what they’re trying to pass through the unicameral this year.

NDCS is operating at 150% of the designated capacity and 120% of the operational capacity as of 2022. State prisons are overcrowded and that has been the motivation behind the unicameral prison reform talks for the last several years. This session, senators are trying again to pass prison reform legislation designated at curbing overcrowding.

Senator Geist introduced LB 50. In it, she touches on building a new prison which she said will create more humane living conditions and provide space for programming.

“It is really hard to look forward on criminal justice reform without that prison building being part of the equation,” Geist said. “I think there will be some discussion about what other reforms can we make that will make that an effective use of state dollars?”

Her bill also proposed creating an assistant position for probation and parole officers, expanding treatment courts, improving telehealth access, and using halfway housing opportunities for people who commit violations on their parole.

“I would like to see people get better, and not just lower their sentence, not just lower their penalty, but have them actually go on and lead a productive life,” Geist said.

State Senator Wayne introduced LB 352. It addresses a lot of the same things as LB50, but also includes other items like lowering penalties of mandatory minimums for drug possession, implementing sentencing changes, and utilizing problems solving courts.

“We can’t build our way out of it, we have to find alternatives,” Wayne said. “So problem-solving courts, drug courts, ways to make sure we lower our recidivism, so we don’t have this cycle of people coming out and going back in.”

Both bills have had one hearing in the Judiciary Committee so far. There was concern about what some of these reforms could mean for public safety.

“As always, if you let 1000 people, or you diverted 1000 People from the prison, there’s always that one who’s gonna mess up,” Wayne said. “And I think our committee cares, they don’t want to be responsible for that one.”

Those public safety concerns are part of the reason LB920, a sweeping criminal justice act, was indefinitely postponed last year. This year, Senator Wayne said he is confident something will pass.

“Something’s gonna pass this year,” Wayne said. “I think myself and Senator Geist have a great working relationship we came in together. And we’re not just limiting ourselves to 920. Again, thresholds, other ways that we can stop on the front end with problem-solving courts. And those kinds of things also make a big difference in our in our prison population and overall criminal statutes.”

The bills have yet to go before the entire unicameral. Stay connected to for the latest information.