There’s a tradition that a state flag waves high above the second-floor balcony outside the state Capitol’s west side when the Legislature is in session.
This coming session you can also look for the banner of public safety being hung out by elected officials, especially when the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee is in session or lawmakers are discussing bills from that committee.
While not literal, it’s a figurative favorite of those who claim that changes to the prison system or the laws used to send people there compromise public safety. Take recent testimony before a Judiciary Committee interim study of mandatory minimum sentencing. Prosecutors say they don’t want the law changed. Supporters of change say it could help the state address prison overcrowding.
The change supporters say they want judges to be able to sentence an offender based on individual circumstances of both the criminal and the crime rather than following a prescribed sentence.
The chief criminal prosecutor of the Nebraska Attorney General's Office told the committee that modification of mandatory minimum sentences compromises public safety and potentially promotes disrespect for the law. Governor Pete Ricketts and Attorney General Doug Peterson are also quick to wave the public safety flag in discussing various criminal justice measures.
Ricketts said that a recent lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union to deal with prison overcrowding was a threat to public safety.
So, just what is public safety? Black’s Law and a variety of sources say it refers “to the welfare and protection of the general public. It is usually expressed as a governmental responsibility. The primary goal … is prevention
and protection of the public from dangers affecting safety such as crimes or disasters.”
Help me understand something here. How does sentencing a convicted drunken driver to prison instead of treatment impact public safety? In some cases it takes an otherwise productive citizen out of the workforce, causes them to lose a job and face a life of substandard employment following release because of a felony conviction.
Here’s the one that really gets me. Let’s lock up somebody who is behind on child support payments. That will allow them to have meager prison wages garnished and work the afore-mentioned substandard job on release. That will get the payments made, eh?
How ridiculous is it to keep filling a prison system that is now the second-most-crowded prison system in the United States. Alabama is Number One.
In his annual report, Inspector General for Corrections Doug Koebernick says Nebraska’s prison population has reached 162 percent of design capacity overall. Seven of 10 Nebraska prisons individually stretch beyond that mark with one at 294 percent of capacity.
As for disrespecting the law, Omaha Senator Ernie Chambers has said mandatory minimums do not protect the public or deter crimes. Those who commit crimes don't know what the penalty is, and they don't plan or expect to get caught.
Mandatory minimum sentencing laws require a minimum prison term of a particular length. With such laws, judges have no discretion to go lower than the minimum sentence and probation is not an option. In Nebraska, an inmate serving a mandatory minimum sentence will not earn or receive good time
credit for his or her behavior while serving the mandatory sentence. Read that, continued prison overcrowding.
Change supporters suggest judges be given the option of not imposing the mandatory minimum if there are certain mitigating factors. Officials say that 19 percent of the 5,295 people currently in prison are serving mandatory minimum sentences and 84 percent of them were previously convicted of a felony while 69 percent were previously in prison. Does that speak to the value of mandatory minimums or is the recidivism rate indicative of other problems?
Lincoln Senator Patty Pansing Brooks said we're all fighting for the safety of our communities. But now we’re quibbling about whether we trust the judges and want to go forward and give them the authority to set the standards, or whether we want to just mandatorily say every case is the same.
Painting with a broad brush never works, unless you’re painting a barn.
J.L. Schmidt is the statehouse correspondent for the Nebraska Press Association. He has been covering Nebraska government and politics since 1979. He has been a registered independent for 18 years.