Prison overcrowding is an issue in Nebraska: How do we fix it?

Sen. Steve Lathrop's bill provides strategies to address prison overcrowding, but law enforcement officials worry reducing penalties will increase crime.

LINCOLN, Neb. (KLKN) – Sen. Steve Lathrop fears that overcrowding in prisons is a problem that could get worse before it gets better.

It’s one reason he is proposing LB920, a bill designed to introduce strategies to get people who may not need to be in the prison system out of it.

Some examples of this include:

  • -Expanding problem-solving courts
  • -Discouraging mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent felonies
  • -Reducing penalties for drug possessions, thefts and burglaries
  • -Tailoring punishments to specific levels of seriousness
  • -Streamlining the parole process for eligible individuals

Tim Lopez was in the Department of Corrections for 15 years. He testified at Wednesday’s public hearing as a neutral party.

He described the overcrowding he witnessed while incarcerated.

“I slept on floors because they ran out of cots, I slept on hard concrete floors because they didn’t have beds,” Lopez said.

“Sleeping on the floor next to the feces, sleeping on the floor, having to eat your food in a room full of crap that was smeared down before the next person. Tell me how you would feel?” Lopez asked state senators at the hearing.

Lathrop projects that even if a new prison were to be built, state prisons would still be 1326 beds short next decade.Scan 1

“We’re going [to pay] $270 million to build ourselves to a position where we’ll need another prison just like it built by 2030,” Lathrop said.

Opponents of the bill are wary of the impact reducing penalties will have on crime.

“I don’t think we should decriminalize things, or reward people for possessing heroin, possessing crack, possessing methamphetamine, possession of fentanyl,” Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine said. “Those are bad things.”

“When you look at states that have lowered penalties, you have seen a dramatic upswing in crime,” Sgt. Aaron Hanson of the Omaha Police Union said. “When we had serious penalties for certain serious crimes, we saw a reduction in those associated crimes.”

Lathrop says he respects the work of law enforcement, but maintains critics of his bill are not providing viable alternatives to address the issue of overcrowding.

“When I got elected three years ago, I met with the county attorneys and I said, ‘We have a an overcrowding problem. Who do you think doesn’t need to be there? Or who doesn’t need to be there as long as they are?’ Nothing. Nothing. Nobody’s got an answer,” Lathrop said.

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