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Nebraska law aims to keep people out of jail for inability to pay bail bonds, fines

by Katelyn Tye ~ September 2017 ~ Stateline Midwest »
Nebraska lawmakers are hoping a new law will reduce the number of individuals being housed in county jails due to the financial inability to pay bail bonds or court-ordered fines and fees.
Sen. Matt Hansen says he initially became concerned about the increasing jail population when he heard that the county jail built in his district in 2013 was already approaching capacity. He learned that many of the individuals being held hadn’t actually been sentenced to jail time — they either couldn’t make their bail and were awaiting trial, or couldn’t pay a fine or fee.
Hansen, who sponsored the enacting legislation (LB 259), says he was especially troubled by one story he heard about a man who received a $150 ticket for possession of an open container of alcohol.
“[The man] was homeless and completely indigent, so $150 may as well have been a million dollars. He had to spend a couple days in jail for a crime that held no jail time,” says Hansen.
Under the previous law, individuals could earn $90 credit per day toward their debts. LB 259 increased the credits earned per day to $150, and also requires courts to consider a defendant’s financial ability to pay when setting bonds, fines and fees.
If a judge determines the person is unable to pay, he or she may either impose a sentence without a fine or cost or, as a condition of probation, require the person to complete up to 20 hours of community service. If people are unable to pay the fine or cost in full, they may also arrange to pay in installments. Judges can still hand down jail time, if they find that a person is willfully refusing to pay a court-ordered fine or fee. 
The law also specifically requires that those alternatives be provided before a person’s driver’s license can be suspended for failing to pay a traffic citation.
“A $200 speeding ticket could mean drastically different things for different people,” says Hansen. “We wanted to give people the ability to ask for a payment plan, for more time to come up with the money, or for community service, instead.”
Hansen has introduced an interim resolution (LR 219) that would study the implementation of the law and also take a closer look at how the state utilizes funds supported by court fees and fines. 
Meanwhile, in Illinois, Gov. Bruce Rauner signed the Bail Reform Act (SB 2034) into law in June, requiring that alternatives to cash bail be offered to people in custody for nonviolent misdemeanors or low-level felonies such as theft, prostitution, driving under the influence or drug possession. Such alternatives include electronic home monitoring, curfews, drug counseling, stay-away orders and in-person reporting.


Article written by Katelyn Tye, staff liaison to the Midwestern Legislative Conference Criminal Justice & Public Safety Committee.