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Legislative Recap: February 4-8

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The Nebraska Legislature had hearings on several bills that impact basic civil liberties and your rights this week. Here is a summary of a few of the bills that you might be interested in keeping track of.

One of the bills that our supporters on Facebook got most excited about was LB 521, which requires municipalities to post ordinances online. In our testimony, presented by ACLU Lobbyist Alan Peterson, to support Sen. Mark Christensen’s bill, three of the complaints that we have received over the years were highlighted. Here is one of them:

2006: A Christian family visiting Wisner wished to go door-to-door with flyers about their religious beliefs.  A police officer stopped them and told them this activity was illegal, unless they obtained a permit from the city clerk, per city ordinance.  The family went to the city clerk's office to ask for a copy of the ordinance and find out what the rules were, but were told the ordinances were only available to attorneys.  After contacting the ACLU, we not only intervened to show Wisner that religious door-to-door activity is protected under the First Amendment, but also that city ordinances needed to be available to the public for review whenever requested.

This situation shows what is unique about the ACLU (and why our supporters are so savvy). This complaint came in through our legal assistance processes, which responds to over 1,000 requests for assistance each year. Whenever possible, we take these individual complaints and use them to impact a broader set of policies. Doesn’t this make you feel good about being a card-carrying member? (And if you aren’t one, you can change that today.)

LB 363 - Public Records

The Lincoln Journal Star covered hearing for LB 363, which ACLU supports. They reported the story of a Nebraska reporter who was charged an outrageous fee for trying to keep tabs on the government:

Tracy Overstreet, a reporter for the Grand Island Independent, told the committee her newspaper requested all emails sent by Grand Island's city staff and the public to the 10 members of the city council for a one-month period last year. The newspaper received a bill for $1,283, of which $725 was for photocopies and $558 for computer time, programming time and time for a lawyer to review the request -- even though the newspaper asked for the information on a computer disc.

The newspaper eventually negotiated a fee of $560 for getting the records on a computer disc.

We are among the supporters of Sen. Bill Avery's efforts to keep government accountable. His bill would prevent the costs of obtaining public records from becoming an unjustified obstacle to citizens monitoring the government.

LB 246 – Inmate Medical Expenses

While this bill, at first blush, appears to be reasonable there are some very serious unintentional consequences that endanger public safety and constitutional rights.

The bill, introduced by Sen. Tyson Larson, would require a medical co-payment for inmates. The Constitution requires prisoners to receive adequate medical care. While this bill tries to make that more affordable, states that have experimented with similar policies have found it just doesn’t work. Research from other states that have tried this shows that costs end up being shifted to other tax-payer funded programs – often times impacting the wives and children of male inmates.

In short: this bill wouldn’t save taxpayer dollars and harms public health, in addition to opening up the state to Eighth Amendment challenges.

LB 267 – Prohibit Undercover Agent Testimony

Now this is a bill that could save some taxpayer dollars. You’ve seen it in the movies and TV shows. John Grisham even wrote a true story about it. Someone who has been charged with a crime gets offered a plea deal for going undercover to snitch on a friend. This bill, introduced by Sen. Ernie Chambers, puts its finger on a problem lawyers have long understood: the information provided by convicted felons who wish to purchase advantages or their freedom is unreliable.

LB 206 – Election Privacy

In 2012, you and other ACLU supporters around the country worked to defend one of our most fundamental values: voting. Lawmakers are looking at a number of policies that impact your ability to vote. One of them, introduced by Sen. Paul Schumacher, guarantees your privacy when voting by mail. During the committee hearing, ACLU Legal Director Amy Miller shared some of the complaints our office has received from citizens in rural towns who were concerned about the privacy of their mail-in ballots. A number of senators on the Government committee echoed the concerns.

LB 44 – Justice for Child Offenders

In June of 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a mandatory sentence of life for children was Unconstitutional. Nebraska, one of 18 states that sentenced children in that manner, has been struggling with how to respond. That discussion was brought to the Legislature's Judiciary Committee in the form of LB 44 introduced by Sen. Brad Ashford.

"If a young offender receives a sentence that allows them to pay for their crime and then return to society, it will keep our communities safe, treat people fairly and use tax-payer dollars wisely," said ACLU Nebraska Legal Director Amy Miller. She has been working with multiple public defenders offices to have courts reevaluate the sentences of the 26 individuals who were sentenced to life before they could vote, drive or see an R rated movie.

Read more about why these sentences are unjust, unfair and unwise.

In addition to the ACLU, Voices for Children, which held the state's first Juvenile Justice Summit in December of 2012, a child physiologist, and Jeremy Herman, who was sentenced to life at age 17 for kid napping. Jeremy has proven that young offenders have the ability to be rehabilitated and be productive members of society. You can read about Jeremy’s story in ACLU’s report, No Second Chance.

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