Sentencing reform, youth minimum wage bills advance

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April 16th, 2015

(Photo Courtesy Fred Knapp)

(Photo Courtesy Fred Knapp)

Nebraska lawmakers are continuing to advance a series of bills intended to reduce prison sentences and relieve overcrowding. And they gave initial approval to a lower minimum wage for student workers age 18 and younger.


It was the second day of debate on a package of proposals to deal with Nebraska’s overcrowded prisons. Tuesday, lawmakers advanced proposals to substitute probation for prison time for lower-level offenses, reduce the use of solitary confinement, appoint an Inspector General for prisons, and increase the use of parole if prisons are too crowded.

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Wednesday, the subject was a proposal by Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers to limit both mandatory minimum sentences and additional prison time for habitual criminals.

Chambers blamed posturing by previous legislators. “One of the worst things that was done was to jump on the bandwagon and join that fad of so called mandatory minimum sentences. A point was reached where new crimes could not be created. Even legislatures did not want to create new crimes, so they said how can we take what we’ve already got and make the public think we’re tough on crime?” he said.

But Omaha Sen. Beau McCoy warned against overreacting. “Colleagues, let’s not have a situation that we’re in, where we have an overcrowding prison population, and we take the pendulum swing back to be soft on crime. I think history will judge us harshly if that’s what we do,” he said.

The bill restricts mandatory minimum sentences to certain violent crimes. Sen. Lydia Brasch of Bancroft asked Chambers about some crimes the proposal eliminates from minimum requirements. “You’re striking out assault in the second degree, you’re also striking out arson, you’re also striking out the assault of an officer, an emergency responder, employees of health care professions, and using explosives to commit a felony. Could you explain why you’re not considering that as violent crimes?” she asked.

“They are violent crimes but this situation that we’re talking about on the mandatory minimums leaves it up to the judge’s discretion,” Chambers replied.

Lawmakers voted 28-9 to give the bill first round approval.

Wednesday afternoon, senators took up the question of allowing a lower minimum wage for student workers age 18 and under. Currently, the minimum wage is $8 an hour, but under an initiative voters approved last November, it’s scheduled to increase to $9 next January. In its current form the bill, introduced by Sen. Laura Ebke of Crete, would allow businesses to continue to pay young student workers $8 an hour.

Ebke said she introduced the bill at the urging of the grocery industry, and said it would especially help small town grocery stores. “The profit margin for many of these stores is small, and the owners remain in business to help their communities stay alive. Helping those kinds of businesses to keep their labor costs low, and yet be able to provide the services needed, is good not only for the young student workers who could use a job, but also good for the business, and more importantly for the community that depends on the goods and services provided,” she said.

Omaha Sen. Jeremy Nordquist opposed the bill, saying it flies in the face of the initiative approved by voters. “Sixty percent of Nebraskans voted to raise the minimum wage. An overwhelming majority of Nebraskans said ‘Yes, hard work should pay in Nebraska. It should be uniform.’ They supported the policy that was on the ballot. And there was support in 73 counties across Nebraska. And now we have an attempt to come down here and start picking it apart,” he complained.

Sen. John Kuehn of Heartwell supported the proposal, LB599. Kuehn said minimum wage increases disproportionately hurt young workers. And he said the choice is not between $8 an hour and $9 an hour. “I would purport that the choice that many students are going to be forced into without LB599 is the difference between $8 an hour and $0 an hour,” he said. “We have an opportunity to ensure these early, entry-level jobs, ensure that those young adult student workers who are contributing to their families have a job and can contribute vs. being unemployed and unable to assist their families, unable to assist themselves, and unable to participate in the workforce in their communities..”

Lincoln Sen. Adam Morfeld opposed the bill, saying while senators were hearing from well-organized supporters, the people most directly affected were not behind it. “A few things have been brought up today, for instance, that ‘All of my community groups and the grocery stores have come to me and told me how important this is and they’re in support of it.’ How many people under the age of 18 have come to you and said they’re in support of this? I’d like to hear from them,” he said. “The fact of the matter is, is that people under the age of 18, it’s easy to go after them and reduce their wages, because they don’t vote for us, because they can’t vote.”

After about two hours of debate, senators voted 32-11 first-round approval of the bill. On the third and final round of voting, it would take a two-thirds majority, or 33 votes to pass, because it changes an initiative approved by voters.

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