LINCOLN — Citing little progress in reducing state prison overcrowding, State Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha introduced a trio of bills Wednesday to accelerate the process.
One, Legislative Bill 675, would move up the deadline for mandating an “overcrowding emergency” by two years, to July 1, to force the release of parole-eligible inmates to reduce prison populations.
Krist, who is mounting a third-party run for governor, said that Gov. Pete Ricketts’ administration needs to do more to reduce overcrowding.
Right now, state law calls for an overcrowding emergency to be automatically enacted in July 2020 if the state’s prison populations are above 140 percent of capacity. It would require the release of parole-eligible inmates deemed to be good risks until the population fell to 125 percent of capacity.
But Krist said that lawmakers, who have been studying the multiple problems in the state prison system for several years, are better equipped now to think “outside the box” and address overcrowding issues, rather than wait.
Overcrowding has plagued Nebraska’s prison system for a decade. State prisons on Wednesday held 5,197 inmates, which is about 155 percent of design capacity. Nebraska has the second-most-overcrowded prison system in the country, and the problem prompted a lawsuit by the ACLU of Nebraska last year.
Ricketts and corrections officials have said that efforts to reduce prison overcrowding are working more slowly than projected but are still expected to reduce prison populations to 140 percent by July 2020. The governor has also said that forced releases risk public safety.
Crete Sen. Laura Ebke, who led a prison oversight committee that looked at prison issues last year, said it is an issue that warrants discussion now. It’s also worthwhile, Ebke said, to “keep pushing” the State Board of Parole to articulate a plan on how an emergency would play out.
Krist said that his Legislative Bill 676 would allow more than 400 inmates who have been denied parole release because they have not received required rehabilitation programs to take part in such programs while on parole.
He said that releasing “terminally ill or permanently incapacitated” inmates to medical facilities, as proposed in LB 672, would allow the state to access federal funds for their care, while also reducing overcrowding.
Among other bills introduced Wednesday:
» Sunscreen: Children attending schools, recreational programs, summer camps and day care programs would be allowed to use sunscreen under LB 688, introduced by Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue. She said the measure is part of a national campaign to protect children’s skin. She said she has found that schools generally do not allow children to have sunscreen with them.
» Air bags: Selling or installing bad air bags in a vehicle would become a criminal offense under LB 690, introduced by Blood. The bill targets counterfeit air bags, which are not dealer-authorized, and air bags known to not work properly. Blood said people can find such air bags online and buy them in hopes of saving money, without realizing that the devices may not work.
» Seat belts: Sen. Roy Baker of Lincoln introduced LB 711, which says no driver can operate a vehicle unless the driver and all passengers are wearing fastened seat belts. Currently, seat belts are required only of the driver and front-seat occupant.
LB 671, introduced by Krist, would allow law enforcement to stop people for not wearing a seat belt or texting while driving. Under current law, people can only be ticketed for those violations if stopped for other reasons.
» Drug testing: Individuals applying for or receiving unemployment benefits could be drug tested under LB 712, introduced by Sen. Joni Albrecht of Thurston. The drug tests could be required if an individual was fired from a job because of illegal drug use. Failing a drug test would make the person ineligible for benefits until the drug test is successfully passed.
» Legislative vacancies: The governor would have to pick from a pool of applicants when a vacancy occurs in the Legislature under LB 777, introduced by Sen. Sara Howard of Omaha. Ricketts has filled past vacancies in the Legislature by picking people who did not apply for the positions.
» Bottle club: Although alcohol is not sold at bottle clubs — patrons bring their own liquor — the clubs would be required to obtain the same licenses as bars and taverns under LB 747, introduced by Sen. Theresa Thibodeau of Omaha.
World-Herald staff writers Martha Stoddard and Emily Nitcher contributed to this report.