Bills Legislature Nebraska Politics

Prison reform: submit testimony on LB980 today

Photo by Hasan Almasi.

There are a lot of bills going through the legislature right now, and many deserve our attention. But today, we’re going to introduce you to LB980 and encourage you to submit online testimony today, or testify in person tomorrow.

Senator McKinney introduced LB980 as part of his efforts to reform Nebraska’s justice system to make it more just. This bill will begin to reduce the overall prison population in Nebraska,  relieving the extreme overcrowding in our state’s prisons, and it will do so in ways that recognize the humanity of people who are incarcerated, without jeopardizing public safety.  Sounds good to us.

How will it do that? First, it will permit individuals who are suffering from serious medical conditions to be treated offsite.  Such people are not a danger to our society, and they deserve appropriate medical care.  The level of care available inside our penitentiary system is unfortunately extremely poor, and they cannot handle many serious medical conditions. Our state system is not unusual in this respect, but that does not excuse it. 

Second, it will require a review and allow for the potential release of men and women serving life sentences after they have served at least 25 years.

This second provision is likely to be more controversial than the first, but both the facts and my own experience as a volunteer inside the prison system convince me that this is both just and safe. Studies show that it is unnecessary to continue incarcerating older people who committed crimes when they were young, once they have served their sentence into and past middle age.  Once individuals reach age 40, recidivism rates approach zero.  This begs the question of why we keep people in our overcrowded prisons into their 50s, 60s, 70s, and beyond, if our rationale is public safety. 

It is part of the stated mission of the Nebraska penal system to rehabilitate as many inmates as possible.  In other words, we officially believe as a state that people can change for the better. Yet, by providing lifers with no opportunity for a review where such change might be meaningfully assessed, we imply the opposite. We deny the humanity of the men and women inside when we deny them a chance for review.  LB980 would provide these men and women with the chance to make their case.

As a long-time volunteer at the Nebraska State Penitentiary, I have had the opportunity to meet and work with many lifers.  A number of them have come together to form a group they call the Circle of Concerned Lifers, in order to work with newly incarcerated men and help lower the violence levels inside the prison.  They are working to improve their community inside the prison walls. I spent time with this group one year, reading and discussing books on restorative justice, truth and reconciliation, and aboriginal justice systems.  I was deeply moved by the level of mature reflection these largely older men displayed and the seriousness with which they discussed their own crimes and subsequent lives inside the prison.  It was very clear to me that they had changed dramatically across the decades they had spent inside the prison.  This makes sense.  How many of us who are in their 40s or beyond are exactly the same person as we were in our 20s?  (Just wait and see, young whippersnappers!) These men, and others like them, deserve a chance to make their case before a review board. 

If you agree that Senator McKinney’s bill should be passed out of committee and onto the floor for a vote, we encourage you to submit your testimony to the committee today. You can do that online here. You can also attend the hearing in person. It is scheduled for Wednesday, January 26 at 1:30 in Room 1113.