- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 26, 2014

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Supporters of proposed changes to Nebraska’s prison system advanced a bill Wednesday intended to reduce the inmate population by providing more services to those behind bars.

No lawmakers voted against the bill, which faces two more votes by the Legislature.

The proposal attempts to deal with overcrowding in the prison system by increasing funding for vocational training, mental health and substance abuse services.

Nebraska’s prisons were at 156 percent of their capacity as of Feb. 28.

Lawmakers also advanced a bill that would study the creation a facility in Hastings designed to serve mentally ill inmates and provide drug and alcohol treatment. That bill also faces two more votes in front of the Legislature.

Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, chair of the Judiciary Committee, said the bill is a start to addressing the problem of prison overcrowding and making sure the public is safer. The state should not build a new prison, he said.

A lot of vocational training, such as welding and automotive training courses, no longer exists in the prison system, Ashford said. Those programs must be replaced, he said.

“Creating a pathway to a job is critical for prison reform,” he said.

In addition to increasing services for inmates, the bill would also divert nonviolent offenders from the Department of Corrections.

The bill would expand specialized substance abuse supervision and reporting program by adding sites in up to three new counties. The program offers a community-based alternative to incarceration.

The legislation would also ban public employers from asking potential employees if they have a criminal record when they are first applying for a job.

Sen. Bill Avery of Lincoln supported the application change, arguing employers would still have plenty of opportunity to ask about a criminal background.

“I see this as an opportunity where we would allow the ex-convict to have a chance,” he said.

Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha, chair of the Appropriations committee, said the changes in the main bill would cost $14.5 million, with the largest chunk of money going to vocational programs and mental health services.

Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha said persistent overcrowding could leave the state liable for a lawsuit by inmates, who could argue they are being kept in cruel and unusual circumstances.

If the prisoners are successful, a judge could order the state to start releasing prisoners or build a new prison.

“We don’t want either one of those solutions,” Lathrop said.

The bill would create a group to study and provide solutions for overcrowding in the prison system. It would include members of the Legislature, judges, representatives of the executive branch and the Council of State Governments, a national organization that has worked with other states on prison reform.

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The bills are LB907 and LB999

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