State Sen. Terrell McKinney of Omaha (Courtesy of Unicameral Information Office)

This story was originally published in the Nebraska Examiner.

LINCOLN — State Sen. Terrell McKinney called Thursday for the Nebraska Board of Parole to revamp its membership so it includes a board member who formerly served time in prison and one who has successfully transitioned back into society through “restorative justice.”

The Omaha senator also said it would be better if Parole Board members didn’t miss so many meetings.

His Legislative Bill 631 would require board members to miss no more than three hearings a year.

It would also bar the board from denying parole to an inmate if the state prison system “did not offer or delayed (rehabilitation) programming due to operational issues, including staffing shortages, maintenance issues, or lack of funding.”

Inmates have frequently complained in recent years that their release on parole has been delayed because, for instance, their required programs weren’t offered in the prison where they were housed.

The proposal comes a year after an extensive state review, facilitated by the nonprofit Crime and Justice Institute, recommended several steps to reduce the state’s chronic prison overcrowding, including adopting a streamlined parole process for nonviolent offenders.

“The Parole Board is an important body in our fight to change the criminal justice system in Nebraska,” McKinney told members of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee.

Wider point of view

He and other supporters of LB 631 said requiring members with a prison background would provide a wider “worldview” of the challenges faced by prison inmates as they transition back into society.

Right now, the five-member Parole Board is required to have one female member, one minority member and one member with a corrections background.

Under an amendment proposed by McKinney, board members would also get training in cultural competency and implicit bias, as well as the hearing of the parole process.

Spike Eickholt of ACLU of Nebraska said the Parole Board has been “underutilized” in addressing the state’s nation-high prison overcrowding.

In 2018, 78% of inmates were granted parole in hearings before the board, a figure that dropped to 58% by 2020. As of the third quarter of 2022, state prisons held nearly 1,900 more inmates than they were designed to hold.

Eickholt said that 943 inmates are parole eligible. While there’s a good reason some haven’t been granted release, he said it behooves the state to promptly release those who are ready to be supervised in the community.

Bob Twiss of Gretna, a member of the Parole Board, testified against LB 631 on his own behalf.

Twiss, a former financial adviser who has served on judicial nominating committees, said McKinney’s proposal goes “way, way too far” in changing the membership of the Parole Board.

He said it would narrow the number of people who would qualify to serve in the full-time, $86,407-a-year post. (The board chairman, Rosalyn Cotton, has a higher salary, $94,700 a year.)

‘We are showing up’

Twiss pushed back on reporting by the Flatwater Free Press a year ago that all five board members attended fewer than half of all parole hearings, resulting in fewer paroles.

He said parole board members get no leave for vacations or sickness, so they are sometimes absent. Twiss said, however, that the board never lacked a quorum of three members to conduct hearings.

He did tell the Judiciary Committee that twice, one of the three members had to recuse themselves from a hearing, which led to a one-month delay in parole hearings for those two inmates.

“We are showing up, contrary to what showed up in the media,” Twiss said.

An expectation to attend hearings

Sen. Carol Blood (Courtesy of Unicameral Information Office)

Bellevue Sen. Carol Blood said that with an $86,000 salary, there’s an expectation that Parole Board members won’t miss hearings. Under LB 631, the quorum to hold a hearing would increase from three members to four.

Twiss added that the percentage of paroles granted likely fell because state prisons are seeing more inmates with longer sentences for more serious offenses.

The Judiciary Committee took no action on LB 631 after a public hearing Thursday. Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne, the committee’s chairman, has pledged to craft a package of criminal justice reforms within the committee for the full Legislature to consider.

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