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Nebraska senators move bills to help felons re-enter society

Since originally being sentenced to death at 17 for shooting two men and killing one of them, Shakur Abdullah changed his name and found a new life helping others. He was released in January 2016 after more than 40 years in prison, and now works as a case manager for Omaha-based Reconnect Inc., a nonprofit organization founded by another former inmate that teaches current and former prisoners job and life skills. But under Nebraska law, Abdullah will not be able to vote until 2018. Nebraska lawmakers ended the state’s permanent ban on felon voting in 2005, but added a two-year waiting period as a last-minute compromise to make sure the measure had enough votes.

“The same sentence that has been discharged is being used to prevent you from voting,” Abdullah said. “It makes you feel like a pariah or a second-class citizen.”

That would change under one of several bills moving forward in the Nebraska Legislature that aim to help felons re-entering society after prison stints. A measure Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha designated as his priority bill, increasing the likelihood it will be debated by the full Legislature this session, could restore voting rights to about 7,800 Nebraska felons as soon as they finish their sentences. Wayne said his bill would reverse a racially motivated decision Nebraska lawmakers made more than 140 years ago to keep newly enfranchised black Americans from voting. People of color are disproportionately represented in Nebraska’s prison system: racial minorities made up 15 percent of Nebraska’s population in the last census but are nearly half of its prison population.

“They knew it was a way to keep minority voters at the time disenfranchised,” Wayne said. “We cannot escape that history.”

Wayne’s bill has advanced from committee and is awaiting a first vote from the full Legislature. So are measures that would require jails to offer inmates state-issued IDs before leaving, extend a 2014 ban on asking about criminal history on public employers’ job applications to include private employers and allow people who had been incarcerated to petition to have their convictions set aside. Bills that would allow drug felons to receive nutrition benefits are stalled in committee, but their sponsors plan to work on compromises over the summer. The bills are part of a larger comprehensive approach Nebraska lawmakers are taking to the criminal justice system, American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska executive director Danielle Conrad said. On the front end, senators have introduced legislation that would change how bail, fines and fees are charged to keep indigent people out of jail for being unable to pay, and the Legislature narrowly advanced a bill that would eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders, though supporters lack the 30 votes to override a near-certain veto. And lawmakers are considering a measure that would limit solitary confinement and other restricted housing in the state’s prison system.

“We no longer have the luxury of focusing on one discreet area in the spectrum,” Conrad said. Three of the four re-entry bills have no price tag, and the Secretary of State’s office predicted the felon voting change would cost about $1,000 to remove references to the two-year waiting period on its website and other information. Those fiscal notes make the measures a “common-sense, low-cost alternative” to more prison spending as Nebraska faces a projected $895 million revenue shortfall during the upcoming two-year budget cycle, Conrad said.

“Each of these pieces working together are critically important in ensuring we’re presenting returning citizens with opportunities for civic engagement,” Conrad said.

Those returning citizens now can get help through organizations like Omaha’s Reconnect Inc. and church-based organizations, which Abdullah said have seen a groundswell of support in the decade since then-President George W. Bush signed the Second Chance Act of 2007. Reconnect Inc. helps current and recently released prisoners pay for state IDs and birth certificates, but it can’t use grant money for IDs and would be able to do more if prisons would make sure inmates had IDs before they left, he said. State prisons now issue ID cards that identify the holder as a recently released inmate, but those aren’t seen as official IDs needed to apply for a job or apartment. Prisons would offer state ID cards or driver’s license renewals, but not new driver’s licenses, under an amended bill sponsored by Sen. Matt Hansen of Lincoln and unanimously endorsed by the Judiciary Committee. A measure sponsored by Sen. John McCollister of Omaha that would prevent private employers from asking about criminal history on job applications advanced on a 4-3 party line vote from the Business and Labor Committee. It’s opposed by the Nebraska chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, which says delays in learning about potential employees’ criminal history could lead to expensive hiring delays.

“Knowing the criminal history certainly is relevant if they’ve been convicted of identity theft and are going to work with credit cards, or if they’re going to be a security guard or day care worker who was convicted of sexual assault,” state director Bob Hostelman said.

Finding a job, voting and otherwise reintegrating with the community will help reduce recidivism rates, said Jasmine Harris, a member of the Urban League of Nebraska Young Professionals who organized an inaugural Black and Brown Legislative Day in February.

“The most important thing that people need to know is that people deserve second chances,” Harris said. “We need to make them feel welcome.”

Police arrest prisoner who escaped from Mount Sinai Hospital

Toronto police have arrested a prisoner who escaped from Mount Sinai Hospital[1] last week. Officers said Andrew Smith, 36, was at the hospital for an undisclosed medical condition when he got away from his guards. He was brought into custody around 6 p.m. Thursday, and will appear in an Old City Hall courtroom on Friday.

Smith was charged with carrying a knife and threatening to kill a University of Toronto security guard.

His escape has prompted the police s Professional Services Unit to investigate police protocol for supervising prisoners at hospitals.


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Keystone set to be approved

WASHINGTON The Trump administration will approve the Keystone XL pipeline on Friday, senior U.S. officials said, ending years of delay for a project that has served as a flashpoint in the national debate about climate change. The State Department will recommend the pipeline is in U.S. interests, clearing the way for the White House to grant a presidential permit to TransCanada to build the $8 billion pipeline, two officials said. It s a sharp reversal from the Obama administration, which rejected the pipeline after deeming it contrary to national interests. The officials, who weren t authorized to speak publicly on the matter and demanded anonymity, said the State Department s recommendation and the White House s final approval would occur Friday.

The White House declined to comment, other than to say it would offer an update Friday. State Department spokesman Mark Toner wouldn t reveal the decision, but said the agency had re-examined Keystone thoroughly after ruling against the proposed project barely two years ago.

We re looking at new factors, Toner said. I don t want to speak to those until we ve reached a decision or conclusion. The 1,700-mile pipeline, as envisioned, would carry oil from tar sands in Alberta, Canada, to refineries along the Texas Gulf Coast, passing through Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma. The pipeline would move roughly 800,000 barrels of oil per day, more than one-fifth of the oil Canada exports to the United States. Oil industry advocates say the pipeline will improve U.S. energy security and create jobs, although how many is widely disputed. Calgary-based TransCanada has promised as many as 13,000 construction jobs 6,500 a year over two years but the State Department previously estimated a far smaller number. The pipeline s opponents contend the jobs will be minimal and short-lived, and say the pipeline won t help the United States with energy needs because the oil is destined for export.

President Trump has championed the pipeline and backed the idea that it will prove a job creator. In one of his first acts as president, he invited pipeline company TransCanada to resubmit the application to construct and operate the pipeline. And he had given officials until next Monday to complete a review of the project. A Trump presidential directive also required new or expanded pipelines to be built with American steel to the maximum extent possible. However, TransCanada has said Keystone won t be built with U.S. steel. The company has already acquired the steel, much of it from Canada and Mexico, and the White House has acknowledged it s too difficult to impose conditions on a pipeline already under construction. Portions of Keystone have already been built. Completing it requires a permit involving the State Department because it crosses the U.S.-Canada border.

In an unusual twist, the agency s recommendation won t come from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The former CEO of oil company Exxon Mobil recused himself after protests from environmental groups who said it would be a conflict of interest for Tillerson to decide the pipeline s fate. Instead, Tom Shannon, a career diplomat serving as undersecretary of state for political affairs, will sign off, officials said. Even with a presidential permit, the pipeline will still face obstacles most notably when it comes to the route, which is still being heavily litigated in the states. Native American tribes and landowners have joined environmental groups in opposing the pipeline.

Environmental groups also say the pipeline will encourage the use of carbon-heavy tar sands oil which contributes more to global warming than cleaner sources of energy. President Obama reached the same conclusion in 2015 after a negative recommendation from then-Secretary of State John Kerry.

TransCanada first applied for a permit in 2008. Years of politicking, legal wrangling and disputes over the pipeline s route preceded Obama s decision to nix the project. The various delays meant Hillary Clinton never issued a recommendation as secretary of state.

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