LINCOLN, Neb. – In the effort to find solutions to Nebraska’s crowded prisons, the chairman of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee says the good-time law should not be at the center of the debate.
Omaha Sen. Brad Ashford said Gov. Dave Heineman has thrown the good-time law into the middle of the discussions over prison crowding, as well as high-profile incidents by discharged and furloughed inmates and botched prisoner release dates.
Heineman has said inmates should have to earn reductions in prison sentences, not receive them automatically.
“The public has a misconception of what caused these problems. It’s not good time,” said Ashford, who is a Democratic candidate for Congress in Nebraska’s 2nd District.
Sen. Ernie Chambers, a longtime Judiciary Committee member, agreed the good-time law needs no alterations.
“That’s the easy thing for people to jump on, especially politicians who haven’t followed all of these issues and developments,” Chambers said.
The state Department of Correctional Services has plenty of latitude to keep inmates in prison for a long time for major crimes, Ashford said.
Three tools can be used for managing inmate sentences, Ashford said. They are good time, administrative sanctions and parole eligibility. Changing the good time law to require inmates to earn reductions in sentences would increase crowding in the state’s prisons, he said.
The prison population has grown significantly over the past dozen years. The prisons went from 164 percent of capacity to 133 percent after the 960-bed Tecumseh prison opened in 2001.
By 2008, prisons were up to 137 percent of capacity. In July 2013, the population was reported to be at 151 percent of capacity, with four prisons above 170 percent. And less than a month ago, the system’s population had increased to 157 percent. The Diagnostic and Evaluation Center was at 280 percent of capacity at the end of June. Six of 10 prisons were over 180 percent.
Several high-profile cases involving deaths and other crimes by inmates who were out on furlough, work release or discharged with limited or no mental health treatment — Jermaine Lucas and Nikko Jenkins in Omaha, Lucius Turner in Beatrice and Jeremy Dobbe in Lincoln — illuminated what the Judiciary Committee knew were problems in the department, Ashford said.
They included understaffing, lack of re-entry programs, a backlog in the parole system and an overuse of administrative segregation, also known as solitary confinement. Scarce funding has also been an issue, he said.
“The point is the Department of Corrections has tools in their toolbox that they could use, and they did not use them because they were overpopulated,” he said.
The department already has the ability to take away good time, he said. And judges and prosecutors have sentencing tools such as mandatory minimums, consecutive and concurrent sentences and the habitual criminal statute to add prison time.
In recent years, the Legislature has spent a lot of its time trying to fix problems in the juvenile justice system. But during that time, Ashford said, problems were building in the adult system.
“(Then corrections director) Bob Houston was unable to find the resources to lessen the problems,” he said.
Houston told the committee as early as February 2013 that the department was “facing difficulty with our capacity,” Ashford said. Before that, he was telling the Legislature — and the public — that the prisons were crowded but safe.
At the hearing, Ashford asked Houston if the crowding was “becoming a significant crisis.”
“Yes,” he answered. “It’s becoming more difficult.”
The committee shifted its attention to the adult system by that summer, Ashford said. Crowded prisons had become dangerous for corrections employees, inmates and the public.
“We moved as swiftly as we could when we were given the information from administration through Bob,” Ashford said.
“The only time I heard from Heineman on this was after Nikko Jenkins, when he said the Legislature’s soft on crime and you’ve got to change the good-time law. And I’ve tried to explain it had absolutely nothing to do with the problem.”
A bill (LB907) passed by the Legislature this year includes policies that would enable good-time procedures to be used effectively, Ashford said. That bill includes a justice reinvestment project, in cooperation with the Council of State Governments Justice Center, aimed at reducing spending and reinvesting state funds in strategies that “can decrease recidivism and increase public safety.”
The bill includes community re-entry planning for inmates being released from prison and vocational and life skills programs.
Chambers said, “Everything done here and around the country when it comes to prisons and prisoners occurs in a political setting.”
The answer for Nebraska’s prison crowding is a lawsuit, he said, in which a court will order immediate release of prisoners.
“I believe there are a lot of people right now who are fit to be released,” he said.
“And the Parole Board still remains part of the problem, especially when it comes to the women, because there are not programs that are available to them,” he added.
In the men’s prisons there’s such a backlog that some of the inmates will never get the programming that the Parole Board “wants to insist on,” Chambers said, so many of them will “jam out,” or be released without parole.