Judiciary pursues reform with budget cuts

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December 28th, 2010

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Omaha, NE – Ten percent budget cuts. That’s what every committee in the Nebraska Legislature was required to come up with, to help the state plug an almost $1 billion budget shortfall next year. The proposed cuts include deep reductions in services and programs at the Department of Health and Human Services and in education. But one committee is using the budget-slashing opportunity to carry through long-sought reforms.

“Anybody can cut 10% out of the budget, that doesn’t take any rocket science to do that.” That’s Brad Ashford, state senator and chairman of the Nebraska Legislature’s Judiciary Committee. “What’s more difficult is to find more and efficient ways to deliver services.”

Ashford’s committee submitted over $31 million in cuts for the next fiscal year, and another $33 million for the year after. Delaying judicial appointments is a major money saver in the proposal. Other cuts include eliminating the state law library, judicial furloughs and an option to release 1,000 nonviolent offenders early from prison over the next two years. That last proposal, projected to save over $12 million, is in line with reform goals that were meant to keep nonviolent offenders out of the prison system, passed by the committee earlier this year.

“These are people that have served a significant portion of their sentences, but we really need the room. And the alternative is to, quite frankly, build more prisons, and we don’t have anywhere near the resources to do that, nor, in my view, is it appropriate.”

“We have the facilities in Nebraska to maintain public safety and keep bad guys and dangerous people off the streets, and still release these 1,000 inmates.”

Also included in the proposal are several reforms that don’t include dollar amounts, but that Ashford said can save the state millions in the long run. Those include a requirement to identify the cost of a felony conviction at the time of sentencing, a program modeled in Missouri to lower the number of felony sentences for nonviolent offenses.

A spokesperson for Bob Houston, the Executive Director of the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services said Houston would not comment on the proposals, as they are too preliminary. But, Dawn Renee Smith said the department was at the table as the proposal was drawn up. And Houston has been supportive of reform goals and reducing prison populations.

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