Western Nebraska Observer - Observations all along the line - Kimball & the Southern Panhandle First

By Daniel Thompson

Heineman proposes 'earned time' legislation


Daniel Thompson

The new legislation would force violent offenders to earn time off their sentence.

Nebraska Governor David Heineman and Attorney General Jon Bruning have announced a proposed replacement for the 'good time' law that would force violent offenders to earn time off their sentence instead of being rewarded essentially one day off their sentence for every day spent incarcerated.

According to a press release obtained from the governor's office, the proposed change, which would apply to inmates who commit the most violent crimes including murder, manslaughter, first degree assault, kidnapping, sexual assault, robbery, escape, assault of an officer, assault by a confined person, use of a deadly weapon to commit a felony, and similar offenses, stems from the desire to make sure that Nebraska residents are kept safe from violent offenders who are released back into the community.

"It is time to eliminate automatic 'good time' credit for the most violent inmates," said Gov. Heineman. "The safety of our citizens should be priority number one and that starts with violent criminals being required to earn any reduction in their sentence, rather than automatically receiving it."

Attorney General Bruning echoed Heineman's statements, reinforcing the idea that the proposed legislation would be put in place to better protect the public.

"Inmates should actively earn sentence reductions," said Attorney General Bruning. "This bill is the next step in our efforts to protect Nebraskans."

Heineman believes that the change will also line up more with the perceived outcome of any case by the public whom he believes are even unaware of the effects that the 'good time' law has had concerning the release of violent offenders.

"Many Nebraskans are unaware of the automatic sentence reductions under 'good time.' They believe that when a judge sentences someone to 20 years that means the person would serve 20 years, not 10 years, which is the reality under current law. It's time to change the 'good time' to 'earned time' law," Heineman said.

The proposed 'earned time' law has received support, most notably from State Senator Scott Lautenbaugh of Omaha who is expected to introduce the legislation during the current 2014 Legislative Session and who believes that the "recent high profile criminal events in the past year" has led the general public to ask for a change to 'good time'.

The proposal has also received support from gubernatorial candidate Pete Ricketts, who has released a statement commending Heineman and Bruning on their efforts.

"Nebraska's good time laws are misguided – automatically rewarding inmates with good time credits as opposed to making them earn the credits,'" stated Ricketts. "I applaud Governor Heineman and Attorney General Bruning for pushing to correct the system and more importantly, protect individuals and families from violent offenders."

However, there are some, like State Senator Ernie Chambers, that believe that any changes to 'good time' serve as a 'knee jerk' reaction to the case of Nikko Jenkins, who allegedly killed four people in Omaha within three weeks of being released from the state penitentiary on July 30, 2013, according to a report by the Omaha World-Herald.

"It's very easy to attack the good time law because it deflects attention away from the fact that there is not adequate mental health treatment or programs of any variety (in prison)," Chambers said.

State Senator Brad Ashford, who heads the legislative committee that must advance any good time proposals, also argues that the change is unnecessary, believing that it does not address the more pressing problems of prison overcrowding and lack of alternatives to expensive incarceration, according to the World-Herald report.

Heineman has already recently made changes to the rules and regulations of 'good time' back in December which, as of December 21, 2013, allow corrections officials to take away twice as much good time for misbehavior, including assaults on prison guards and other prisoners with new maximum penalty allows for up to two years, instead of one year, of good time loss for inmates. However, local law enforcement officials, such as Kimball County Sheriff Harry Gillway, believe that the current law only serves to negate the rulings of judges.

"My opinion is, if a judge sentences someone to the state penitentiary, that's what the judge wants. If he sentences a person to ten years in jail, that's what the community and that particular judge want, that that person spend 10 years in jail," Gillway said.

Gillway also believes that the current law serves as a detriment to law enforcement agencies.

"It's a slap in law enforcement's face whenever a violent offender, a murderer gets out of jail and commits another crime. That means that those cops have to catch this guy again, and maybe they won't catch that guy," Gillway said.

While Gillway admits that he is "adamantly opposed" to violent offenders ever getting a reduced sentence, he believes that the new legislation will at least help with verifying that the violent offenders who are released early back into the general public will have had a track record of reform while incarcerated.

"I can understand good time. I can not understand the way that it was run before. Good time should be earned. And with that good time, there should be verification," Gillway said. "I believe that if someone says that they're going to be a law abiding citizen, and they sit before a parole board, that we have to verify that they are going to be that good person who enters the community and is a law abiding citizen."

He also disagrees with Senator Chambers' claim of the current proposed legislation being a "knee jerk reaction", arguing that it is, rather, Heineman admitting to a flaw in the current law and the effects that it has had on the general public over the past several years.

"Jenkins...he killed four people shortly after getting out of the pen. Within a week, he's killing people. This isn't a knee jerk reaction like Senator Chambers said that it is. It's not that at all. This is something that the governor's office made a mistake three years ago when they passed that law. It was a mistake. We learn from our mistakes, and I'm sure Governor Heinemann is learning from that mistake because of this," Gillway said.

However, it is not just inmates in the state penitentiaries that are getting out at a much quicker pace under the current 'good time' law, but also inmates on the county level.

"That's one case. There are many other cases of these offenders getting out. We've had here in our own community that have gotten out way too soon that were violent offenders sentenced to the pen for an extended period of time, and we're seeing them get out so quickly. And that's where it's frustrating," Gillway said.

It is particularly frustrating to local law enforcement as the seemingly rapid release of some offenders offers little time for much of any rehabilitation to take place.

"We had a drug offender here that was sentenced to the pen, got out early, but had an ankle monitor. He wasn't out more than a few days, and he cut that monitor off and took one of the cords from a cellphone and, probably on youtube, found a way to connect it so it seemed like he was still connected. In the meantime, he went out on a binge on methamphetamines. I find him, get him arrested, and he's put back into the pen again. He got out, violated again, and he went right back to the pen," Gillway said.

He also finds a flaw in the lack of mental screening that violent offenders undergo when being released from state facilities to ensure that they are mentally capable of rejoining society without further incident.

"They are mentally checked when they go in. They go through diagnostics and evaluation for several weeks. Why aren't they going through mental evaluations and diagnostics when they're released?" Gillway said.

Gillway's strong stance against the automatic "good time" credit that violent offenders currently receive stems from an understanding that even offenders of the most horrific crimes will not serve the entirety of their sentence.

"Right now, we have people in the pen right, right now one fellow for killing his 15 month baby, and he was sentenced to 20 years to life. You know, and me, I was there for the autopsy as the law enforcement official that headed up the investigation. I think the sentence was just where it was. This man murdered a child, and brutally murdered a child," Gillway said. "Nobody whether it be the doctor, the EMTs, the law enforcement, should ever have to witness those kinds of things. We witness enough bad things anyway."

Recalling the situation, Gillway's frustrations were only made worse when realizing that, under the current law, the man convicted of killing the child could be out in as little as 10 years.

Gillway believes that in order to get away from future mistakes, the proper solution is to let the judges decide the sentence and let that be it.

"I have the utmost faith that our judges know what needs to happen. They're the ones that hear the case. Our jurors find the person guilty of the crime if it's not just a bench trial, and the judge reviews all the circumstances behind it. If he sentences that person to life imprisonment, that's what it should be. Nothing else," Gillway said.

However, he admits that the situation, whether 'good time' or 'earned time' is in place, will still be somewhat of a Catch-22 scenario when considering overcrowding and the inability to get the multitude of inmates into the treatment programs needed.

"There's only so many jobs, so many programs, so many things and so much money we can throw at an issue. And we can not truly rehabilitate every criminal that goes to jail, but you can't lock them up forever either," Gillway said.

No matter what comes as a result of Heineman's proposal, Gillway states that there is an obvious need for reforming the current system.

"We're doing our best, and I know the police department is doing their best too. But it's difficult. It's a difficult thing, and when we get drug dealers that are going to jail for a short amount of time and getting right back out. There's something wrong with that system. They're not rehabilitating at all," Gillway said.


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