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Senator Tom Brewer
I’m a member of the Nebraska Justice System Special Oversight Committee. This committee came about as a result of Legislative Resolution 127 which was passed last session. The mission of this committee is to study the many serious problems facing our Department of Corrections. This is the third legislative committee to do this and it continues the work of the LR 424 Committee (2014) and the LR 34 Committee (2015).
During the course of the summer we toured all ten correctional facilities across Nebraska. We spoke to staff and prisoners alike. Problems common across the board include over-crowding, understaffing, and high staff turn-over. Mandatory overtime because of the understaffing causes moral problems. The parole situation is a vicious circle problem. Prisoners otherwise eligible for parole aren’t qualified and can’t be released on parole because they lack the training required to be considered for parole. The pre-parole programs the prisoners need to complete can’t be staffed and operated because of the understaffing problem. Lack of a competitive pay and compensation program makes fixing the staffing problem more difficult.
Since January 2015, the Department of Corrections has reduced the prison population by 25% and the number of prisoners released on parole has increased 136%. During this same time however, the population in our county jails has increased by 46%. I see this as an unfunded mandate on the counties. Nebraska’s prison problem is also now a county problem. Our county jails shouldn’t be used to help reduce the State’s prison population. This isn’t funded and it’s not what the jails are designed for.
LB 605 was passed in the 104th legislature. It forces Nebraska to reduce the prison population to the designed capacity of the facilities. Presently we’re at about 160% of designed capacity and forecasted to get worse. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a civil rights lawsuit against Nebraska in August of 2017 due to the overcrowding and lack of adequate healthcare for inmates. By 2020, the law mandates reductions in our prison population which I think could result in a public safety problem if we were ever reach that point. Obviously, this is something the Legislature has to work on in the next session. The same could be said for a number of other very serious problems.
We heard testimony from Director Frakes today. I think it is important to point out the Department of Corrections requested funding for ninety-six fulltime positions in the last budget, and the Legislature only funded twenty-nine of those. As a result efforts to run the needed programs the inmates require so the population could be reduced through parole have been limited.
I’ve heard other ideas like “exporting” prisoners to other States with excess prison capacity or hiring a private company and contracting out our correctional services. I don’t like these ideas. These are Nebraska problems that need a Nebraska solution. I support additional funding for the Department of Corrections. Public safety is the very first and most important function of government. I also believe it is not necessary to raise tax revenue to do this. Spending on other State functions can be prioritized and that money reallocated.
Out-of-control property taxes, the prison problem, and a budget shortfall, which will be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, will be that subjects that dominate the next session.
Please contact my office with any comments, questions or concerns. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call us at (402) 471-2628.