Greetings from the State Capitol!
In August, I attended a seminar sponsored by the National Conference for State Legislatures and the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. A series of educational meetings on criminal justice led me through new perspectives and solidified current expectations on policy.
The states in our nation share a common thread on objectives to cut spending, reduce the prison population, create effective educational, vocational and treatment programs, reduce recidivism, enhance public safety and measure policy impact through assessment tools, best practices and responsible oversight.
Since 2009, 29 states have eased mandatory penalties for nonviolent crimes and drug offenses according to the Vera Institute of Justice. Furthermore, states have embarked upon the task of reducing prison population by lowering these sentences in favor of community based services, diversion and treatment programs, as well as probation and post-release supervision. This generates fundamental space in our prison system for the most serious offenders who commit violent crimes against our residents of Nebraska.
The most serious offenders cannot be present in our communities until they have served a significant amount of time and proven themselves to no longer be a safety risk so they can be reintegrated into society. Our prison system needs to reserve space for those individuals who are a serious danger to themselves and to others in our communities, and at the same time find proper programs that can effectively treat drug abuse, addictions, and mental health disorders.
The dollars that are saved through reducing sentences for nonviolent crimes can be reinvested into programs and alternatives that are often more effective in terms of rehabilitation, and reduce the chance for past offenders to re-enter the revolving door to prison. Currently, our recidivism rate is at 32%. Taxpayer savings can be reinvested into effective programs and treatment, and then assessment tools that collect data can evaluate whether these policies and programs are actually working in this State.
Nationally, since 2000, the corrections budget has made up 5-6% of the state General Fund and for the fiscal year 2014, 5.3%. The four major spending items in a state budget are corrections, K-12 education, higher education and Medicaid, with Medicaid being the largest item.
With that in mind, corrections funding is almost entirely spent from the General Fund. According to the Public Safety Performance Project of Pew Charitable Trusts, every $9 out of $10 spent on Corrections goes specifically to prisons. Hence, the need to proactively manage our prison population and the cost is paramount to a proper budget as well as effective use of taxpayer dollars to the State.
The seminar sponsored by the National Conference for State Legislatures proved to be a resourceful and useful collaboration of information on criminal justice issues that affect all states from coast to coast. I am glad to report that Nebraska has advanced policies in 2015 that will create safer communities, real growth and a reduction in wasteful spending in the future.