A recent change in state law included in a sweeping corrections overhaul reduced the maximum prison time faced by an Omaha woman charged in the death of a 4-year-old girl.
Chelsey Cook, 22, faces up to three years in prison if she's convicted of intentional child abuse. Before state lawmakers passed legislation last year that reduced the maximum sentences assessed for a number of crimes, someone convicted of that charge could face up to five years in prison.
The body of 4-year-old Alicia Morrow, who was in Cook's care, was found about 10 p.m. Tuesday, wrapped in plastic in the basement of a frigid house at 3025 Franklin St. On Friday, Douglas County Judge Derek Vaughn set Cook's bail at $1 million. That means she would have to pay 10 percent, or $100,000, to be released from jail.
People who learned of the time that Cook is facing expressed outrage on social media, saying three years isn't enough.
Despite the shorter prison sentence, however, an offender convicted of child abuse or another, similar felony now could spend more time under state supervision upon release from prison than under the old law. That's because the new legislation attached periods of mandatory supervised release to many lower-level felonies.
For example, under the old law, someone sentenced to five years for the child-abuse conviction would get out after 2 1/2 years with goodtime credits. Such a release, without re-entry services, has been blamed for higher criminal re offense rates.
Under the new law, the same person sentenced to three years would get out in 1 1/2, but automatically would remain on supervised release for another 1 1/2 years — for a total of three years of state supervision.
For the right types of offenders, lawmakers considered supervised release a preferred option because it can include electronic monitoring and require substance abuse or mental-health counseling, shown to reduce the likelihood of a subsequent criminal violation. Supervised release also is much less costly than incarceration.
The sentencing changes were part of an effort to address Nebraska's prison overcrowding and were recommended by the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments, a national think tank that has helped about 20 other states reduce corrections spending. Lawmakers also sought input from Nebraska defense attorneys, prosecutors and judges throughout the legislative process, said State Sen. Les Seiler of Hastings, chairman of the Legislature's Judiciary Committee.
Last year's legislation also increased the penalties for some violent felonies, Seiler added Friday.
Even so, Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine said he would prefer the longer sentence, at least for convicted child abusers. Additional charges against Cook are possible, including homicide, once Kleine receives final autopsy and toxicology results.
Seiler pointed out that child abusers who cause serious injury or death can face more serious charges and penalties under Nebraska law. But the decision on which charges to file rests with prosecutors.
"The facts of the investigation decide what you're going to charge someone with," said Seiler, a retired attorney who once practiced criminal defense.
"So it really starts with the facts."
At least for now, Cook is facing the intentional child abuse charge. Kleine said authorities are calling it intentional because they maintain that Cook didn't seek medical attention for Alicia when the child was cold and barely breathing because there was a warrant out for Cook's arrest.
Instead, Cook took out a Bible and began praying over the child. She realized Alicia was dead an hour and a half later and hid her body in the basement, where it remained for more than 2 1/2 days.
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