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The issues surrounding the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services is a top priority for the Legislature this year. Nebraska’s prison system is at 159% of capacity. State law allows the governor to declare an overcrowding emergency when a prison’s population goes over 140% of capacity. This level can also be a benchmark federal judges use to order new construction. The first-phase of a Nebraska Department of Correctional Services 2014 Master Plan report called for $261 million in construction costs to renovate and expand correctional facilities.
The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center came to Nebraska and worked over the interim with a group including the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. Their efforts focused on the development of justice reinvestment programs in an effort to avoid the need for new construction. They presented recommendations to reduce prison overcrowding and recidivism, by increasing the use of probation and drug courts for nonviolent offenders, as well as increased supervision of inmates after their release. It is estimated that their plan would cost approximately $33 million over the next several years but could avoid new construction costs.
An interim study (LR 424) was introduced during the 2014 legislative session in response to the 2013 murders committed by former inmate Nikko Jenkins. The committee was to examine the circumstances surrounding Jenkins’ incarceration and release, looking specifically at the use of segregation and the availability of mental health treatment.
The LR 424 committee’s work was broadened as it was revealed that the department had miscalculated sentences regarding mandatory minimums for hundreds of inmates and disregarded state Supreme Court rulings. Further scandals were revealed relating to a Re-entry Furlough Program, the release of prisoners before they were eligible for parole, a questionable Temporary Alternative Placement program, and the misuse of good time credits.
Multiple bills have been introduced in an effort to reduce prison overcrowding and in response to the problems that surfaced at the Department of Correctional Services. Four of them were heard before the Judiciary Committee on Friday of this past week.
LB 605 contains most of the recommendations from the CSG Justice Center. This legislation is designed to slow Nebraska’s prison population growth, ease prison overcrowding, contain corrections spending and reinvest a portion of savings into strategies that can reduce recidivism and increase public safety. The bill would ensure post-release supervision and update felony theft thresholds to reflect inflation for property crimes. LB 605 proposes to divert low-level offenders to probation rather than prison and expands access to probation’s Specialized Substance Abuse Supervision program.
LB 606 creates the position of Inspector General of the Nebraska Correctional System to oversee corrections. It also would require, not simply authorize, that a Governor declare a correctional system overcrowding emergency whenever the director certifies that the population is over 140% of design capacity. LB 592 seeks to improve access to mental health treatment for prisoners. LB 598 carries out a recommendation from the LR 424 committee, by requiring the department to institute a plan for the proper use of segregation.
Two bills were recently advanced from the Judiciary Committee. LB 172 would eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for a list of midlevel felonies. LB 173 would restrict habitual criminal status to those who committed two prior violent felonies. Currently habitual criminal status applies to both violent and nonviolent felonies.
The focus of other bills range from requiring electronic monitoring when violent offenders are released, to increasing access for participation in rehabilitation programs, to adjusting the good time policy. Legislation has also been introduced to appropriate $261 million to build a 1,100 bed prison.
This past week, the Appropriations Committee, of which I am a member, met with the newly appointed director of the Corrections Department. Director Frakes expressed a willingness to work with the legislative branch to fix the problems in his agency. Committee members stressed the need to be upfront with the Legislature on funding needs, in order to avoid situations like what we are currently experiencing.
Along with tax relief, issues stemming from prison overcrowding are sure to occupy much of the Legislature’s time this session. If you have any comments on legislation pertaining to correctional issues or on other topics before the Legislature, I encourage you to contact me. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. My telephone number is (402) 471-2733 and my mailing address is District #1, P.O. Box 94604, State Capitol, Lincoln, NE 68509.