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The Governor has appointed Scott Frakes as the new Director of the Nebraska Department of Corrections. Frakes comes to Nebraska with 32 years of experience in the State of Washington. The Judiciary Committee and the Appropriations Committee of the Legislature are eager to work with him to address Nebraska’s prison problems and overcrowding. The Legislature’s number one and primary objective is to keep the public safe.
This week Director Frakes appeared before the Appropriations Committee to discuss his budget and to begin a conversation on what needs to be done. He has only been on the job for about three weeks so it is too early for him to have a long term plan. It was not hard to identify the systems biggest problem.
The Diagnostic Center facility is over 300 percent of capacity. He stated that other issues he had discovered in his first three weeks are: deferred maintenance, staffing stripped to the bone, prison capacity at all facilities stretched to the limit, and a long list of program needs.
The preliminary budget includes an additional $20 million of new funding to help him to succeed in his new job. He will need it as Nebraska’s corrections system has real systemic problems.
Reported crime and arrests have declined between 2004 and 2013, but prison admissions increased and are now outpacing releases. If this growth continues unchecked, prisons will become even more crowded, swelling from 159 percent of capacity as of 12-31-2014 to a projected 170 percent of capacity by FY2020. To build a new 1,100 bed prison, the cost is estimated to be $262 million plus operating expenses. Even with this additional prison, the system would be at an estimated 128 percent of capacity.
Last year, Governor Heineman, Chief Justice Heavican and the Speaker of the Legislature, Senator Greg Adams, commissioned a study by the Council of State Governments Justice Center. The study offers hope by using a data-driven “justice reinvestment” approach to help the state.
The full report can be found at csgjusticecenter.org/jr/nebraska/publications/justice-reinvestment-in-nebraska-analysis-and-policy-framework/ but the following are the primary challenges the system faces: Nebraska’s overcrowded prisons house a large number of people convicted of non-violent, low-level offenses who might be placed in other settings, Nebraska’s felony sentencing system fails to ensure that people sentenced to prison receive post-release supervision or pay victim restitution, and; Nebraska’s parole supervision system lacks the resources necessary to handle a growing parole population, and not fully adopted evidence-based practices, and is not positioned to respond effectively to parole violations.
The Legislature has developed a package of up to 10 bills that respond to the CSG’s Justice Center Report. Four bills have already been considered, which are:
Under LB 598, by Senator Schumacher, the Department of Corrections would be given a time period to conduct public hearings to develop regulations for the imposition of solitary confinement. The rules would guide the level of confinement, conditions, behaviors and mental health status of inmates. This is to address the problem of overuse of solitary confinement, particularly for patients with a mental illness.
LB 592, by Senator Bolz, would improve access to mental health treatment for inmates and improve tracking and evaluation of those determined to be mentally ill and dangerous.
LB 606, by Senator Mello, would create an office of inspector general for the Department of Corrections and would require the Governor to declare an emergency when the prison population reaches 140 percent of capacity. Current law does not require the declaration of an emergency.
LB 605 would adjust sentencing structures to reduce the prison population.
In the afternoons, the Judiciary Committee will continue public hearings on the other bills that would implement the recommendations of this Report.
This week the Appropriations Committee begins its long process of public hearings on the preliminary budget it has crafted for the next two years. You may view these hearings on the Legislature’s web site, nebraskalegislature.gov by video streaming.
As always I would appreciate any thoughts and inputs you might have on correcting Nebraska’s corrections problems and the budget. My contact information is: Senator John Stinner, District 48, P.O. Box 94604, Lincoln, Nebraska 68509, Phone (402) 471-2802. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.