Gov. Dave Heineman penned a one-paragraph letter last week that could put some needed heft behind legislative efforts to improve Nebraska’s prison system.
The letter signals the administration’s willingness to consider outside, expert advice on how best to manage criminals before they re-enter society. For any governor, that step is rare.
It bolsters efforts by State Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha to secure planning and implementation help from the Council of State Governments on meaningful, cost-effective prison reforms.
The respected, nonpartisan council requires buy-in from all three branches of government before lending its policy expertise to a state.
Ashford, chairman of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, already had the support of Nebraska’s Chief Justice, Mike Heavican, and of the Legislature. But the governor’s decision to join in matters, even if he wants more specifics about how the council might help.
With Ashford in his last term, as is the governor, inviting outside advice could help ensure continuity as the state’s next generation of leaders face these ongoing concerns.
In the area of prisons, the council has worked successfully with 18 states toward what it describes as a “justice reinvestment approach.”
Essentially, the approach mirrors what Ashford is seeking for Nebraska: Greater emphasis on diverting nonviolent criminals from prison, freeing up prison beds for more serious and violent offenders. For those in prison, the approach adds emphasis on treatment, training and transitioning back into society once their sentences are served.
To succeed, the approach requires states to commit to spending a portion of the millions of tax dollars they save by imprisoning fewer people and put it toward rehabilitation and post-prison follow-up. Texas projects $685 million in savings on prison costs over two years and plans to reinvest about $240 million, according to council data. Kansas got help, too, and since the early 2000s has seen a drop in return trips to prison of more than 22 percent.
Ashford is working toward similar goals with his proposal, Legislative Bills 907 and 999. Combined, he says, they would commit $15 million to $25 million a year toward reducing repeat trips to prison and the associated costs.
That is less than it would cost each year to operate a new state prison, let alone build one. At the same time, the trend lines of more inmates coming in than going out means doing nothing guarantees the need for new prisons and more spending.
Nebraska’s prisons now house 50-plus percent more inmates than they were designed to hold. That makes it harder to offer inmates the mental health care, life- and job-skills training they need to avoid returning to lives of crime.
Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer is among those who have supported a key part of the reform proposals — an emphasis on after-prison monitoring. He testified before the Judiciary Committee that most criminals who are going to reoffend do so shortly after getting out of prison. Knowing the locations of recently released inmates can help law enforcement keep the worst apples behind bars.
Ashford’s evolving legislation incorporates many similarly researched ideas. At this moment of cross-branch agreement, his plans deserve the most serious consideration.
Results from states where the council has been involved — including Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Michigan — show that this approach can work. Each saved millions in state spending on prisons, reduced return trips to prison and enjoy the benefits of improved public safety.