Capitol Digest reporters photo xcapitoldigest capitoldigest

From left, World-Herald legislative reporters Martha Stoddard, Paul Hammel and Aaron Hegarty.

The World-Herald’s Statehouse reporters round up news highlights from the Legislature and state government into the Capitol Digest — a daily briefing for the political newshound with a busy schedule.

Corrections reforms. Judges would have more leeway in keeping people out of prison under a corrections package advanced Friday by the Judiciary Committee.

The package includes pieces from several bills. All were amended into Legislative Bill 686, which was introduced by Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha and named a committee priority bill.

Lathrop said the most significant provision allows deferred judgments, which could help ease prison overcrowding. Judges could use the provision to put defendants on intensive probation rather than behind bars. As an incentive, defendants would avoid a conviction if they complete the probation successfully.

He said the option could be especially helpful in areas where there are no drug or other specialty courts, or where those “problem-solving courts” are at capacity.

Another piece of the package would prohibit prison officials from putting inmates in restrictive housing if they have a serious mental illness, a developmental disability or a traumatic brain injury, a move that national experts have recommended. Other pieces would give jails more options for making inmates competent to stand trial and would make it a crime to bring a cellphone into a jail or prison.

No longer included in LB 686 is a proposal to give the Department of Corrections more time to meet a deadline for reducing prison overcrowding. Current state law requires the governor to declare an overcrowding emergency and start paroling eligible inmates if prisons are at more than 140% of design capacity by July 1, 2020. The department must continue paroling inmates until the population drops to 125% of design capacity.

Corrections Director Scott Frakes opposed relaxing the deadline, saying that the overcrowding emergency law doesn’t mandate the release of any inmates and that setting “additional arbitrary benchmarks that are not possible to attain” won’t help ease prison overcrowding.

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Falconry bill, others advance in consent calendar. Thirty bills were debated and quickly advanced from first-round discussion on Friday as lawmakers took up the “consent calendar” bills for 2019. They are noncontroversial measures that qualify by advancing from legislative committees on unanimous votes.

Debate is limited to 15 minutes for each bill on the consent calendar, so the discussion often resembles a speed-reading contest, as senators quickly race through their points before the deadline hits. When Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha is really mad, he will mess with the consent calendar, running out the 15-minute clock on bills that mostly make minor changes in state law.

But some noncontroversial bills can be interesting, including:

» LB 374, which will allow falcons to be used in chasing off ducks and geese around airports.

» LB 564, which expands how money generated by turnback taxes around sports arenas can be used. Part of the funds are granted to community improvement projects in places outside Omaha and Lincoln, and the bill will allow not just community halls and recreation centers to qualify, but also historic buildings or districts, as well as public spaces.

» LB 533, which would amend state statutes to conform with federal law by using gender-neutral words regarding marriage licenses and marriage ceremonies. The bill removes the phrase “husband and wife” and replaces it with either “spouse” or “applicant one and applicant two.” The bill advanced by a 26-6 vote, with 12 senators voting “present.” One opponent, Sen. Robert Clements of Elmwood, said he wanted no part of LB 533 because it related to same-sex marriage, which was legalized in all states by a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. “I wonder if it will expand to more than one person or other relationships,” Clements said.

» LB 454, which will allow someone with a home school diploma to qualify for a state real estate license. The State Real Estate Commission had required a diploma from a high school or a GED.

Prison leadership shuffle. Three state prisons have new wardens.

Rich Cruickshank, who is back from a National Guard deployment, will become the warden at the Omaha Correctional Center . Previously, he ran the Nebraska State Penitentiary. Barb Lewien is moving from warden at the Omaha Correctional Center to become warden at the Community Corrections Center-Lincoln, and Charlie West will become warden at the Nebraska Correctional Youth Facility in Omaha, leaving a similar post at the community corrections facility in Lincoln. The three have a combined 99 years of experience in the state prison system.

Reporter - Regional/state issues

Paul covers state government and affiliated issues. He specializes in tax and transportation issues, following the governor and the state prison system. Follow him on Twitter @PaulHammelOWH. Phone: 402-473-9584.

Martha Stoddard keeps legislators honest from The World-Herald's Lincoln bureau, where she covers news from the State Capitol. Follow her on Twitter @StoddardOWH. Phone: 402-473-9583.

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