By Gov. Pete Ricketts
Events over the past two years have resulted in a renewed focus on the importance of public safety and the role of state government in administering justice and upholding the rule of law. From errors that resulted in the early release of convicted murderer Nikko Jenkins and sentencing miscalculations to incendiary comments made in a committee hearing by State Senator Ernie Chambers, public safety has been at the center of conversations at the State Capitol and across Nebraska.
These events and conversations have served as the basis for a variety of reports and advocacy for a number of approaches to address concerns about the way our corrections system has operated in the past. Groups ranging from the Council of State Governments (CSG) to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have made policy recommendations to the Legislature to address concerns they have about overcrowding in our prisons, the utilization of solitary confinement, and the availability of mental health services to inmates. Several senators have introduced legislation generated from these advocacy groups this year. In the final eight weeks of this legislative session, senators will be considering what new resources they may provide to our corrections system and which policy recommendations are worthy of adoption.
During this upcoming discussion, it is imperative that any changes in policy are motivated by a desire to put public safety first. Nebraskans tell me that they want to see an approach to reform that is tough on criminals. Some of the proposed policies under consideration in the Legislature, however, are out of step with the desire of Nebraskans to be tough on crime. For example, the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee has advanced a plan introduced by Senator Ernie Chambers to do away with mandatory minimum sentences for certain classes of felonies, and to provide for more lenient sentencing guidelines. If the Chambers plan is adopted, some sex offenders could end up receiving early parole for which they are not currently eligible.
Senator Chambers’ plan to repeal the death penalty is another troubling proposal. The death penalty remains an important tool for Nebraska’s prosecutors when seeking proportional punishment for the most heinous crimes. Some have tried to argue that the death penalty is too costly; however, the costs of litigating the appeals that are filed in death penalty cases are negligible to the state and in no way offset the death penalty’s usefulness in sentencing the worst criminals. In fact, the fiscal note for the death penalty repeal shows no cost savings to taxpayers should this repeal effort succeed. As I have said before, I will veto any attempt to repeal the death penalty here in our state. This proposal is the wrong direction and would soften our state’s approach to dealing with criminals.
While the Unicameral considers legislation, Nebraska Department of Correctional Services (NDCS) Director Scott Frakes has already been hard at work making critical changes to his agency’s policies and programs. Within weeks of his appointment, Frakes ended a furlough program that had previously given violent offenders early release. Recently, my office announced with NDCS that important software upgrades will be made to sentence calculation software to eliminate manual processes that had previously resulted in sentence calculation errors. Additionally, I am working with both NDCS and the Attorney General to develop alternative protocols to ensure that the State of Nebraska can effectively carry out the death penalty. These first steps represent a commitment from my administration to continually seek new ways to put public safety first.
There is more to be done and my administration will continue to work closely with the Legislature to ensure that reforms that are made to our corrections system protect public safety. If you share these concerns about the future of our corrections system, I would urge to you to have a conversation with your state senator about the importance of supporting policies that protect Nebraskans. You can find all the information you need to contact your state senator at www.NebraskaLegislature.gov.