The Nebraska Legislature gave initial approval Wednesday to a compromise bill that would eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders in what supporters say is an important first step toward comprehensive sentencing reform.
Senators voted 25-22 to advance an amended bill after it became clear a proposal to eliminate mandatory minimum penalties for a variety of low-level felonies did not have enough support. The amended measure would apply to people convicted of possessing and intending to distribute cocaine, heroin or methamphetamine. Such crimes now carry mandatory minimum sentences of three or five years.
Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Omaha, who proposed the amendment, said she doesn’t see the purpose in having a mandatory minimum sentence for people on drugs.
“This is just a little step,” she said. “If you’ve got someone who’s been caught with drugs, do you really want to lock them up for three to five years and release them without giving them any help?”
Opponents of mandatory minimum penalties argued that the sentences do nothing to encourage good behavior or rehabilitation. Inmates often serve their sentences and leave without participating in programs that aim to help them contribute to society, they said.
Sen. Justin Wayne, a criminal defense attorney from Omaha who has represented drug offenders, said mandatory minimum sentences don’t help drug users who need treatment.
“Going to jail simply doesn’t help them,” he said. “Having a five-year mandatory minimum doesn’t help them.”
The amended bill is a good step, Wayne said, but he urged senators to evaluate the state’s entire criminal code and penalties in the coming months. Inconsistencies now in the code make threatening to hit someone a felony, while actually hitting someone is a misdemeanor, he said.
The drug offenders now subject to mandatory minimum sentences are dealers of hard drugs, not people selling piddling amounts of marijuana, said Sen. Mike Hilgers of Lincoln.
“These are folks at the top of the food chain,” Hilgers said. “These are serious crimes.”
Sen. Mike Groene, of North Platte, said he believes crime is down nationally because of tough-on-crime laws including mandatory minimum sentences, but he voted for the bill after clarifying judges still would be able to give longer sentences to offenders who deserve them. The measure would maintain minimum sentences of three or five years and maximum sentences of 50 years for the felonies affected.
The bill still requires two more votes and a signature from Gov. Pete Ricketts, who opposes it. Ricketts said in a statement that removing mandatory minimums for any offenders “would soften Nebraska’s protections for public safety.”