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State senators introduced a number of criminal justice-themed and Department of Correctional Services-related bills Wednesday. They included proposals on prison overcrowding emergency requirements, medical release of inmates and reasonable rates for phone calls from county and city jails. 

* OVERCROWDING EMERGENCY: Omaha Sen. Bob Krist introduced a bill (LB675) that would require, beginning July 1, that the governor declare a prison overcrowding emergency whenever the prisons director certifies the inmate population is more than 140 percent of design capacity. Upon certification, the director would have to provide a list of the parole-eligible inmates.

In October, the average daily population of Nebraska's prisons was slightly more than 155 percent of design capacity.

During a correctional system overcrowding emergency, the parole board would immediately consider or reconsider inmates eligible for parole.

* SUBSTANCE-ABUSE PROGRAM: A bill (LB676) also introduced by Krist would authorize the director of the Department of Corrections to allow a prisoner, when it would benefit the inmate and society, to get substance-abuse evaluations or treatment, attend rehabilitative programming or treatment, seek residency or employment, or participate in structured programming.

* MEDICAL RELEASE OF INMATES: Another of Krist's bills (LB672) would allow a terminally ill or permanently incapacitated inmate to be considered for medical release by the Corrections Department.

The department could grant the release only after a review of the inmate's medical, institutional and criminal records, and additional medical evidence from examinations or investigations. The decision about medical release would be within the sole discretion of the department.

The inmate would have to agree to placement for medical treatment in a hospital, hospice or other housing, including his or her family's home.

If the inmate's condition improved, or if the inmate violated conditions of the release, he or she could be returned to prison custody for a hearing on whether the medical release should be overturned.

* ELECTRONIC HEALTH RECORDS: A bill (LB716) introduced by Omaha Sen. Sara Howard would appropriate $500,000 from the state general fund to the Department of Corrections in the next fiscal year to implement an electronic health records management system for inmates.

* JAIL PHONE CHARGES: Omaha Sen. John McCollister introduced a bill (LB776) that would help county and city jail inmates who must pay high prices to make phone calls to their families or attorneys.

The bill would require a county or city jail to make available a prepaid or collect telephone call system, or a combination of that, without receiving money from contractors in excess of reasonable operating costs.

The provider of the inmate telephone services would also have to allow inmates to make calls to their attorneys without charge and without monitoring or recording by the county jail or law enforcement. 

More than half of Nebraskans in county and city jails have not been convicted of a crime and are unable to post the required bond. While they are held, they need to be able to communicate regularly with their attorneys, McCollister's bill says.

For-profit prison telephone service companies provide inmate telephone service for most local jails. Their contracts are awarded on a monopoly basis, and rates are not subject to regulation or oversight. Many of the providers return a portion of the income or profit to the county or city on a commission basis and result in arbitrarily high costs borne by the inmates and their families, the bill says.

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