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Nebraska has taken sound steps in recent years to promote prison alternatives for suitable nonviolent offenders. “Problem-solving” courts such as drug courts and veterans treatment courts use probation and other supports to help defendants avoid incarceration and adopt responsible habits.

That approach is a major cost saver compared with incarceration (about $2,865 annually for a case in a problem-solving court; about $38,627 for prison housing).

This session, the Legislature has approved a related concept, called deferred judgment, to give judges discretion in certain cases to withhold finding a defendant guilty and instead place him or her on intensive probation.

The aim is the same as that of problem-solving courts: to seek prison alternatives in appropriate cases, using probation to promote responsible behavior and reduce recidivism. If passed into law, intensive probation could be used in jurisdictions around Nebraska, including those that have few or no problem-solving courts.

Iowa courts have adopted such a system, and State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha used it as a general model in developing his legislative proposal for Nebraska. Wayne’s proposal was incorporated into the Judiciary Committee’s main legislative bill that received final approval last week.

Under deferred judgment, the judge dismisses the guilty charge if the defendant successfully completes the terms of the probation.

Defendants have a strong incentive to complete the probation, since otherwise they’re declared guilty and face jail time. Eligibility for the program would be the same as for regular probation — various felonies, including murder, would bar eligibility. The bill specifies that DUI and domestic violence offenses would automatically exclude an offender from consideration for deferred judgment.

In addition, judges would have flexibility in deciding whether to use it in individual cases, looking at factors including public safety, the likelihood of rehabilitation, prior record of convictions, family circumstances, mental health and substance abuse history.

State Sen. Steve Lathrop, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has worked constructively with court system officials and other senators to simplify the process to keep the procedures manageable and efficient for the courts.

That work has eliminated the need for additional state appropriations under the bill.

Promoting prison alternatives in appropriate cases serves the public interest. Lathrop is right when he calls deferred judgment “an important tool for judges.” Gov. Pete Ricketts should give final approval so this approach can move forward.

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