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Probation violations plague county court

September 3, 2017 GMT

On Aug. 21, as the region prepared for the total solar eclipse, Judge Donald Rowlands held a special Lincoln County District Court motion date outside of the year’s schedule, after time away from work earlier this summer.

About half of the docket — less than one page long, compared with a typical motion day’s docket that fills up to three pages — consisted of defendants who violated their post-release supervision, Lincoln County Attorney Rebecca Harling said later.

The numbers were nothing new after a summer of frustrations, often expressed in open court both by judges and the county attorney.

In 2015, Legislative Bill 605 aimed to reduce prison populations by reducing sentences for the lowest classifications of felonies. Becoming law on Aug. 31 that year, it sent those felons to probation or jail instead of prison, with mandatory post-release supervision after a jail sentence.

After being found guilty of a crime, defendants are either sentenced the same day or receive a pre-sentence investigation. The PSI may show that a defendant does not want probation.

“Because you don’t want to stop using,” Harling said, or “you don’t want someone telling you what to do.”

She added that other defendants don’t qualify for probation, because they have numerous past convictions or are deemed at high risk to reoffend.

But after serving jail time, defendants receive mandatory probation anyway and have violated it in droves, Harling said.

There are three ways to violate your post-release supervision as a defendant: if you can’t be found for 14 days, if you commit a new law violation, or if you have up to 90 days of other violations such as failing to show up for treatment or meetings.

“The problem is,” Harling said, “you’re putting people on PRS who don’t want it, who are going to violate pretty quickly. So you’re jailing them twice, really, and you’re clogging the system.”

Harling gave the example of a man who was sentenced to 300 days in jail for a 3A felony. His mandatory nine months of post-release supervision began June 10. On June 11, he was arrested for trespassing and was resentenced to 269 more days.

“This guy did 569 days on a 3A felony,” Harling said.

Later, a woman was sentenced to 300 days in jail, and within a month of her release was arrested for shoplifting and tested positive for methamphetamine. The new law violation meant the woman was no longer able to go to treatment. She was resentenced to 329 more days.

The longest time a person can spend in a Nebraska county jail for one sentence is one year.

Harling acknowledged that without mandatory supervision, defendants may commit the crimes after jail anyway, without the accountability.

“Do I want people who are putting people at risk incarcerated for putting people at risk? Yeah,” she said. Still, she said, “double prosecuting doesn’t feel all that good.”

Rowlands agreed, saying he hopes the Nebraska Legislature changes the mandatory post-release supervision in upcoming sessions. Rowlands would like post-release supervision for lower-level felonies to be “discretionary,” leaving the option to impose it in the judge’s hands.

Rowlands said he and District Judge Richard Birch often meet with state senators, and he hopes to bring up the issue to North Platte state Sen. Mike Groene ahead of the 2017 legislative session.