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Recent editorials published in Nebraska newspapers

Posted 11:00 a.m. Monday

Omaha World-Herald. June 18, 2017

Crime victims show why DNA testing of prisoners matters

Victims of unsolved crimes have a better shot at justice today because Nebraska's prison system has begun more vigorously enforcing a state DNA collection law.

Nebraska law requires state prisons to collect DNA samples from felony inmates. But World-Herald reporting found nearly 80 inmates that prison officials had let say no to testing.

The state's first wave of more assertive DNA collection has already helped investigators identify a suspect in four Omaha rapes in 2002 and 2004, Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine said last week.

"We pushed very hard for these collections — and for good reason," Kleine told The World-Herald's Todd Cooper. "It shows the power of DNA, the power of the law."

It shouldn't have taken so long, one of the women attacked, Nicky Patten, told The World-Herald. "They've been sitting on this the whole time because he checked a 'no' box? Years and years of victims not knowing and not getting closure, all beause of silly little loopholes like this."

She is right to criticize the prisons' previous policy of letting inmates decline tests, despite the state law, sentencing orders and a Supreme Court ruling that required gathering inmate DNA.

Inmates who refuse to allow the DNA tests now face a possible loss of prison privileges and good time. If they continue to resist, Corrections will seek a court order to collect the sample by force.

The new approach is working. Prison officials said 13 inmates were still refusing DNA collection last week, down from 78 in late April.

Prison officials say Lincoln Correctional Center inmate Brandon Weathers had refused to be tested, so they obtained a court order. Guards held him down and swabbed his cheek, and the Nebraska State Patrol DNA lab checked his sample against unsolved cases. Kleine says Weathers' DNA matched the suspect sought in four cases.

That's progress, even if it took prodding.

Kleine says he expects to charge Weathers with four counts of first-degree sexual assault. Weathers is already serving a 100- to 160-year sentence for raping a 13-year-old foster child.

Here's hoping more crimes can be solved as the state makes more felons comply with the law.

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The Grand Island Independent. June 14, 2017

Probation funding cuts a big setback

It seems like the state of Nebraska keeps taking two steps forward and one step back when it comes to reducing its prison population.

Nebraska's prisons hold 5,200 inmates, while they were designed to hold 3,275. Many believe this has created unsafe conditions for both prisoners and corrections officers.

One step taken to ease the burden on the prisons was to expand probation services so that more low-level felons could be released from prison and put on probation.

That was a good move that was designed to lower the prison population, improve safety and allow former inmates to begin to transition back into society.

However, after only being expanded for two years, probation services are now being reduced. This $4.6 million funding reduction will have a major impact on what probation services can accomplish.

The funding cut is understandable. The state was facing an approximately $900 million shortfall. The governor and senators were looking everywhere for cuts. Few departments were spared, no matter how worthy the need.

That's where the Office of Probation Administration fell. Its funding was surely needed, and would move the state forward, but it still wasn't spared. Senators thought there was no other choice.

But it is a step back for the state. Probation officers have a difficult job. Keeping track of the 14,000 adults and 3,000 juveniles on probation is a monumental task. Making sure they are following the guidelines of their probations takes time and meeting with the individuals.

The effort to do that has now been set back.

The state's 238 adult probation officers and 171 juvenile officers will now have larger caseloads, and as a result, will be unlikely to keep as close of track of those on probation. This could be a public safety issue and could lead to more resignations among probation staff.

Furthermore, Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Heavican has warned that if probation services aren't adequate, judges will be more likely to sentence offenders to prison, even if otherwise they would be a candidate for probation.

If the chief justice is right, and he likely is, then the prison population will grow, not shrink.

The probation funding cuts are a setback for prison reform. The overcrowding conditions are likely to continue. So the question now is will the probation cuts end up costing the state more in the long run.

___

Lincoln Journal Star.  June 14, 2017

Worthwhile investment teaches students

State officials unveiled a program Monday that aims to give all 26,000 Nebraska fourth-graders a taste of Nebraska's icons.

A group of private funders wants to get every fourth-grader in the state to visit the Capitol or one of 11 other cultural sites throughout the state in the 2017-18 school year. The fund - which is currently at $400,000, roughly enough to fund 80 percent of students - will reimburse public and private schools and homeschooling groups for the cost of sending students to the designated locations.

Given Nebraska's tight budget for next year, there's no way the state could have funded such an initiative. But those who understand the need for young Nebraskans to experience firsthand what makes their state unique deserve credit for sponsoring a significant, worthwhile investment.

The broad focus for this program also deserves praise for including four locations in the Panhandle, which are important to show young Nebraskans the treasures of the state from border to border.

"If somebody wants to come from Chadron to the state Capitol, we can accommodate that," Suzanne Wise, director of the Nebraska Arts Council, told reporters at a press conference Monday. "In my view, this is a gem that we want everyone to visit."

This is a positive development, particularly to mark Nebraska's 150th birthday, to ensure as many students as possible can appreciate this wonderful state, regardless which town or city they call home. As economic conditions have forced school districts to make difficult decisions, field trips — such as the annual rite of visiting the Capitol — were often among the casualties.

Fourth grade has long been the year where Nebraska students focus on the history and government of the state. A visit to the Capitol is undoubtedly the prime way to see government in action and bring to life the Nebraska Department of Education's grade-level social studies standards, which include describing "the origin, structure and function of Nebraska's unicameral government."

The other 11 sites - such as Chimney Rock and Homestead National Monument - are icons that preserve and share the foundation and history of the state after a century and a half. These Nebraska gems more fully tell the stories of the people and places, including many far from the capital city, that helped shape the state the fourth-graders now call home.

To know Nebraska is to appreciate Nebraska.

And for students to treasure and fully appreciate it as they should, they must have the opportunity to learn and know all the state has to offer. This program and the generous funders who made it possible are helping ensure that fourth-graders are having the experiences that more fully teach them about Nebraska.

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McCook Daily Gazette. June 13, 2017

State given mixed score on child health, teen driving

With apologies to Charles Dickens, Nebraska "is the best of states, the worst of states."

The Annie E. Casey Foundation is adopting the first stance, with the implication that ending the Affordable Care Act and cutting Medicaid and other services will seriously hurt our standings in services for young children.

WalletHub, on the other hand, concludes Nebraska is one of the worst states when it comes to teen drivers.

The 2017 Kids Count Data Book created by the Casey Foundation, ranks Nebraska 11th nationally for overall child well-being.

Specifically, 95 percent of children in the U.S. and Nebraska now have health care coverage through Obamacare, Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program.

Policies like the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit are resulting in fewer kids living in poverty, more parents having jobs and more families able to afford housing, said Chrissy Tonkinson, research coordinator for Voices for Children.

Nebraska has one of the highest rates of parents who work in the country, as well as parents who work multiple jobs, she said. "So, our economic well-being score is indicative of how much we work; and then also, Nebraska is pretty affordable to live," she said.

Laura Speer of the Casey Foundation called for leaders to use the information to make good decisions to maintain the gains already made.

Once those children reach driving age, however, they face worse than average odds, according to WalletHub.

With 226 auto-related teen deaths every month in the U.S., the personal-finance website compared 50 states based on 21 key metrics.

With 1 being best and 25 average, Nebraska ranked:

(asterisk) 42nd in teen driver fatalities per teen population.

(asterisk) 43rd in teen DUIs per teen population.

(asterisk) 42 in presence of distracted-driving/texting-while-driving laws

(asterisk) 32 in premium increase after adding teen driver to parent's policy.

(asterisk) 43 in provision of teen driver's graduated licensing program laws.

(asterisk) 30 in vehicle miles traveled per capita

(asterisk) 28th in presence of occupant-protection laws

The conclusion? You can find a silver lining if you're looking for one, but there's always room for improvement.

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