The Legislature, the governor and the new director of corrections soon will begin a needed discussion on prison reform.
The goal will be to explore options to reduce overcrowding in the Nebraska correctional system. We all have an important role to play in this reform.
As a member of the Legislature and the Judiciary Committee, I have heard several sides and opinions for solutions.
Some people advocate for a tougher stance on inmate behavior through legislation and departmental rules and regulations. Others emphasize additional programming to deal with the underlying causes of crime and the mental illness that frequently are associated with inmates at all corrections facilities.
In the discussion of reform, there is always a great deal of concern. There is concern for the community, concern for the inmates, concern for crime victims, and concern for justice.
I venture to add yet another concern, that of corrections employees. No one knows the effects of prison legislation better than those who are charged with carrying it out. In addition, no group would be more affected by changes in policy. Whether it be changes on how good time is earned, programming availability or the construction of a new prison, the men and women working for the Department of Corrections will be charged with the implementing these changes and the resulting effects.
When you see the effects of prison overcrowding with your own eyes, as I have, it becomes readily apparent that the job of protecting us from those the justice system has removed from society is not an easy or safe task.
It is also notable that the department is carrying out its duties with fewer employees, managing more inmates with fewer corrections officers. Our prison system has become the new repository for people with mental illness. A third of the inmates in the system have a mental illness. As a result, corrections officers have become de-facto mental health technicians.
They are charged with managing a system with 50 percent more inmates than the facility is designed to hold. When you add to this the high rate of mental illness, it becomes clear that we have asked our state corrections officers to deliver an increasingly impossible task: keeping safe a crowded population of people with no regard for the law and under-treated mental illness.
The work is dangerous. The administrative decisions we make in the Legislature will affect the severity of that danger. Our corrections employees and their safety deserve deference to that danger and warrant consideration in decision-making.
Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln is serving his second term representing Legislative District 27.