- Associated Press - Monday, July 6, 2015

Omaha World Herald. July 1, 2015

Mandatory sentencing minimums still needed

Nebraska lawmakers, who return to Lincoln in January, should clip and save coverage of the last few days’ shooting violence in Omaha.

Separate shootings that killed two people and injured nine others clearly articulate the need to keep mandatory minimum criminal sentences in state law.

They are a reminder of why the Legislature first passed mandatory minimums - to get the bad guys off the streets for longer than a blip.

In this past session, lawmakers nearly passed Legislative Bill 173, a proposal to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for gun crimes, drug dealers, sex offenders and repeat criminals. Fortunately, state senators came to their senses during the final round of debate.

Without mandatory minimums, LB 173 would allow a bigger portion of prison sentences to be cut in half by the state’s automatic “good time” law.

Which is why LB 173, which remains alive for consideration in next year’s session, should remain on ice.

Omaha police say one victim was shot and killed Sunday morning sitting on a porch near 33rd Avenue and Burdette Street by someone traveling past in a car.

A second was killed while driving Monday afternoon near Miller Park by “three little dudes,” a witness said.

Guess which crimes would no longer qualify for a minimum prison stay under LB 173? Shooting at an occupied home and from a moving vehicle.

Last year, Omaha police arrested 349 people for felonies that qualified for mandatory minimum sentences. Most of those were for gun and drug offenses.

Police and prosecutors across Nebraska say the threat of minimum prison sentences helps them get and keep bad guys off our streets.

That sounds like a good reason for lawmakers to remember the violence of these past few days and keep mandatory minimum sentences on the books for such serious crimes.


McCook Gazette. June 30, 2015

Tempers flare along with temperatures

Listen in on the police scanner, and you can tell tempers are beginning to climb with the temperatures.

We’ve noticed the phenomenon for years, but scientists say there are real reasons we get a little edgy on those hot summer days.

As your body temperature increases, your heart rate goes up and your blood pressure rises as your body tries to cool itself off.

At the same time, you may feel yourself drained and sluggish, which can lead to aggressive behavior when confronted with some sort of conflict.

And, if you’re dehydrated as little as 1.5 percent of your body’s normal water volume, studies show you can have difficulty concentrating and get a headache, making you more tense and anxious.

The popularity of caffeinated drinks like iced coffee doesn’t help, since caffeine acts as a diuretic and can cause irritability and anxiety.

Things are not as difficult as they were years ago in the pre-air conditioning days, but heat still kills hundreds of people each year - 7,415 heat-related deaths from 1999 to 2010 according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It’s of special concern in areas with a large elderly population, as people 65 and older are at high risk for heat-related illnesses.

Fans are available through a Community Action Partnership of Mid Nebraska program, call (308) 345-1187, but in case of extreme heat, don’t rely strictly on fans; find somewhere cooler to be during the hottest parts of the day.

Drink more water than usual and don’t wait until you’re thirsty to drink.

Check on a friend or neighbor and have someone do the same for you.

Don’t use the stove or oven to cook; try the microwave or outdoor grill.

Even young healthy people can get sick from the heat if they participate in strenuous physical activities during hot weather.

Wear loose, lightweight, light-colored clothing.

If you participate on a sports team that practices during hot weather, have workouts and practices earlier or later in the day when temperatures are cooler.

Keep track of your teammates and seek medical care immediately if they have symptoms of heat-related illness.

Besides keeping ourselves and others safe, let’s do our best to be good neighbors, shutting off the fireworks early and keeping loud parties and barking dogs under control.

A little caution, kindness and common sense will help make the hot summer season a little more pleasant.


Lincoln Journal Star. July 3, 2015

Prison Report will be key test

Not surprisingly, a review of the May 10-11 riot at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution found that a number of individual staffers performed admirably in a crisis situation, but it was flaws in the system that put them into the crisis in the first place.

The Nebraska Department of Correctional Services had plenty on its plate before the Mother’s Day riot that left two inmates dead at the hands of fellow prisoners and two more injured after being shot by guards. Overcrowding at several facilities and incorrectly calculated release dates - issues inherited by the administration of Gov. Pete Ricketts and new Corrections Director Scott Frakes-yielded a lengthy to-do list.

And then, on a Sunday afternoon, chaos.

The analysis of the riot and recommendations in its aftermath were written by Tomas Fithan, a security and emergency management administrator with the Washington State Department of Corrections, where Frakes worked before coming to Nebraska. The rest of the review team works for Nebraska’s Corrections Department.

The report made observations directly connected to the uprising, such as allowing too many inmates at one time into the prison yard to pick up over-the-counter medications - and having too few guards to watch them. But the report also noted longer-term issues, ones involving programming (there’s too little to keep inmates busy and productive) and staffing (not enough, leading to voluntary, sometimes mandatory, overtime).

While the report sheds a light on a violent and tragic incident, its findings aren’t shocking. The real key will come later this month, when Frakes is expected to release the department’s own corrective action plan to address specific recommendations in the review team’s report.

The upcoming report is likely to address simple issues involving administering medication and how to respond immediately in the face of a crisis. Many of these changes will involve protocol and procedures and come at little or no cost.

But if it really aims to solve important problems, the report also will address some of the systemic issues raised: ongoing training for staffers, recruiting of new employees, programming for inmates, physical changes to the prison to promote safety and ensuring that guards have - and are trained to use - the best tools to maintain control.

Some of these fixes will probably carry a price tag, perhaps a hefty one. The riot and this incident report underscore for the Legislature and Ricketts the likely need for investment. And investment it is, the dividends being safety and lower recidivism rates. There are more fun things state government can spend money on, but fewer that are more important.

In the meantime, though, the focus will be squarely on Frakes and his team and how quickly, decisively and transparently they tackle the immediate issues raised by the riot and resulting report.


The Grand Island Independent. June 27, 2015

Will others states’ deficit problems become Nebraska’s?

The state of Nebraska finances appear to be in good order, as recent projections indicate a cash reserve of about $700 million. This is in stark contrast to several other states, such as Illinois. That state is being confronted by budget deficits measuring in billions of dollars.

A core problem for many states like Illinois is public pension plans. In brief, over the years politicians have promised benefits to government employees that far exceed government’s ability to pay them. Pension plan assets simply aren’t enough to satisfy projected payout obligations.

There are several reasons why many public pension plans are in trouble. One is that for years unions pressed for extremely high benefits, and were granted them. Politicians caved in to union demands because they wanted union support during elections.

Many politicians reasoned that generous retirement benefits wouldn’t be paid out until far into the future, when they would be out of office. In addition, some states assumed that their pension plans would earn extraordinarily high investment returns, so future benefits wouldn’t cost too much. Few people asked what would happen if those returns didn’t occur.

Today, the result in some states is that spending for normal public services is being crowded out by commitments to retired government workers. Past labor negotiations produced agreements that are neither fair nor affordable, and unions are not open to changes. Thankfully, most states (including Nebraska) are not faced with this problem.

In states like Nebraska, the public, politicians and unions have been able to balance electoral tensions with sound spending policies and reasonable labor agreements. In states like Illinois, the opposite occurred. Now the chickens are coming home to roost.

All of this matters to Nebraskans because existing law does not provide for the bankruptcy of states. So, the risk is that in the future states in dire financial straits will declare that they cannot raise their taxes high enough to cover their obligations, and will ask for a federal bailout. A federal bailout would mean the nation as a whole would be asked to pay for the mistakes of a few states.

Our guess is that prospect would not be appealing to Nebraska taxpayers.

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