LINCOLN — Gov. Dave Heineman's proposal to toughen the state's “good time” law ran into some bad times Wednesday before a legislative committee.
Members of the Judiciary Committee took turns expressing skepticism that requiring violent criminals to “earn” good-time reductions in their prison sentences was any better than the current law, which allows good time to be taken away for assault and other serious misbehavior.
A couple of lawmakers described Heineman's proposal as an “illusion” because it would grant good time to inmates for simply signing up for rehabilitation programs and sitting on a waiting list.
State Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha said sitting on a waiting list won't make violent criminals less likely to commit another crime, and that overcrowded prisons already lack rehabilitation programs.
“It looks like we're changing something but we're not putting the resources in place to actually do it,” Lathrop said. “This is the illusion that we're doing something.”
Legislative Bill 832 is part of a two-prong response by Heineman to the Nikko Jenkins case.
Jenkins is charged with four slayings in the Omaha area within a month of his July 30 release from prison.
The killings have raised questions about whether Jenkins received proper mental health care while behind bars and how well prisons prepare inmates for re-entry into society.
They also sparked concerns about the state's current good-time law, which gives an inmate a one-day reduction in sentence for every day served in prison, effectively cutting a sentence in half. Good time can be taken away, but that happens in less than 5 percent of all disciplinary cases, according to a World-Herald analysis.
In the case of Jenkins, he could have spent nine more months in prison had officials deducted the maximum amount of good time from him for assaults and other misbehavior.
The Department of Correctional Services has already changed its policies to allow twice as much good time to be taken away.
Heineman and Attorney General Jon Bruning have said the second step is to require violent inmates to “earn” good time through good behavior and compliance with their personal rehab plan.
Under LB 832, only inmates sentenced for murder, kidnapping, sexual assault and other violent crimes would be required to earn their sentence reductions.
Proponents say that would hold violent inmates, who pose the highest risk to society, to a higher standard of conduct, and give them an incentive to participate in anger management and substance abuse programs that can reduce that risk.
“It just makes sense to have it earned rather than give it automatically,” said Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh of Omaha, who introduced the bill on behalf of Heineman.
Other supporters included Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer, a representative of Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert, Omaha City Council member Aimee Melton, John Wells, head of the Omaha police union, and Mike Kenney, state corrections director.
They pointed out that even if prison rehab programs are lacking, LB 832 was a step in the right direction. The current good time law, they said, cannot punish an inmate for failing to participate in rehab classes, unlike the Heineman proposal.
Also testifying for the measure were relatives of Andrea Kruger, whom Jenkins allegedly shot and killed, and Thomas Varney, who was slain in 2006 in an unprovoked shooting in Arnold, Neb.
Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha said changing the good time law was a political cop-out to distract from the failure of the Heineman administration to properly run state prisons.
Chambers said that when earned time was the law two decades ago, it led to discrimination and favoritism because corrections officials could decide who earned a sentence reduction and who didn't.
He said the bigger issue in the Nikko Jenkins case was why his pleas to be committed to a mental hospital were ignored, and why he wasn't offered any mental health care during years in solitary confinement.
Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said the panel will begin crafting its prison reform proposals next week.
He said one of his proposals, LB 907, would address concerns about the re-entry of violent offenders to society by requiring a period of supervised release.