Nebraska attorney general challenges criminal justice reform bill

LINCOLN — Nebraska Attorney General Mike Hilgers is challenging the constitutionality of part of a new criminal justice reform statute that passed in the Legislature this year. 

A spokesperson for the Attorney General’s Office confirmed the office filed a lawsuit Monday against Legislative Bill 50. The challenge pertains to a section of the bill that addresses parole eligibility requirements, which would allow some inmates to become eligible for parole earlier. 

LB 50 covers a wide range of issues related to criminal justice reform, such as increasing Nebraska’s problem-solving courts and expanding parole options. Lawmakers debated over these issues for two years before enough senators supported the bill, which ultimately passed in a 34-15 vote. 

According to the lawsuit, changing the parole eligibility of existing inmates violates the separation of powers in the Nebraska Constitution. Because the law could allow some inmates to be granted parole earlier than their initial sentence, the lawsuit argues that gives commutation power to the Board of Parole — a power solely held by the state’s Board of Pardons. 

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The lawsuit also submitted documents showing that Nebraska Department of Correctional Services Director Rob Jeffreys initially reached out to the Attorney General’s Office in late August about interpreting LB 50’s constitutionality. Upon hearing that the office found this portion of the law unconstitutional, Jeffreys said the department would not impose the new requirements retroactively on inmates sentenced before LB 50 took effect Sept. 2. 

LB 50 was originally introduced by former State Sen. Suzanne Geist of Lincoln, who now works for the Attorney General’s Office. After Geist resigned from the Legislature to focus on the Lincoln mayoral race, the bill was adopted by Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha and was amended several times before it eventually passed. 

Passing the bill was a hard fight in the Legislature this year, with resistance coming up during every round of debate, primarily from a handful of Republican lawmakers and the County Attorneys Association. Geist’s replacement, Sen. Carolyn Bosn of Lincoln, said she was concerned that the legislation could reduce sentences for repeat offenders and substantially decrease the time inmates could spend behind bars before they are granted parole.

Wayne argued that LB 50 was essential to the success of Nebraska’s criminal justice system. In the same session, lawmakers also approved $350 million to construct a new prison. Wayne said measures in the bill could help reduce recidivism rates contributing to Nebraska’s prison overcrowding problem. 

Typically, when the attorney general challenges the constitutionality of state statute, it’s up to the secretary of state to defend the law. But that may not be the case here. In a statement from Secretary of State Bob Evnen, he pointed out that his office also has the ability to hire an outside attorney to argue the case, though he did not confirm whether it would do so. 

“Our office will adhere to the procedure established by the Nebraska Legislature,” Evnen said. “Though we are fulfilling our statutory duty, no one should conclude that this means that I disagree with the Attorney General’s opinion.” Twitter @ErinBamer

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