Debate over Nebraska's habitual criminal law

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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) -- Nebraska calls it habitual criminal. It means if someone has served prison time for serious felonies – the third time you're caught – prosecutors can add at least 10-years to your sentence.

Right now, 182 people locked up in Nebraska's prisons have the official label of habitual criminal. It’s three percent of the inmate population.

"Prosecutors have one job, and we have another. And ours is looming in 2020,” said Senator Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln.

Senator Brooks wants to cut back on the felonies that qualify for habitual criminal as a way to reduce the prison population. The criminal defense attorneys association supports it.

"Please end this abuse of the criminal justice system. Those convicted on non-violent felonies can still receive plenty of time in prison,” said Lancaster Public Defender Joe Nigro.

The County Attorneys Association is against the plan.

"Our position is the habitual criminal statute is not broken and doesn't need to be fixed,” said Deputy Douglas County Attorney Jim Masteller.

So what constitutes a violent crime in the new definition? Under the proposal, a felon with a gun, having a stolen gun or burglary would no longer be on the felony list to charge as habitual criminal.

"The problem is we have violent criminals who get out and then create property crimes. There's a current example where a guy was arrested for a number of auto thefts. He previously served time for murder. It's a tool to deal with the criminal causing the biggest problems,” said John Wells with Omaha Police Officer's Association.

This is the example cited by the Police Union President Rudolph “Josh" Lucero. The 34-year-old spent 15-years in prison for murder, went back in for a year for felony theft. Omaha Police arrested him last week, he's suspected of at least three more felony theft cases.

He's considered a habitual criminal now but that would change under the proposal before lawmakers because theft isn't considered a violent felony.

Senator Pansing Brooks has listed 60 felonies as violent to be considered for the habitual criminal label. When a similar proposal failed three years ago it counted just seven felonies.