Bills Seek to Remedy ‘Severe and Critical’ Problems in State’s Prisons

By JoAnne Young

A group of senators who spent months studying what to do about Nebraska’s prisons troubles have offered a list of solutions in a package of bills.

“Fixing our broken prison system is the No. 1 issue that the Legislature needs to address in the upcoming session,” Appropriations Chairman Heath Mello said at a Friday morning news conference.

The bills were prompted by crowded prisons and too little attention given to the mental health and substance abuse problems of inmates.

“Both these reports have pointed out severe and critical deficiencies which have to be overcome,” said Judiciary Committee Chairman Les Seiler.

Omaha Sen. Bob Krist said the Legislature will use the bills as a guide, but he has asked senators to wait for Gov. Pete Ricketts and a new prisons manager for any direction they might offer.

At the same time, he said, it’s important for the Legislature to move forward because of lawsuits the state could face.

“The ACLU is watching. The Department of Justice is watching,” Krist said. “We have an obligation to clean up what is a culture in the Department of Corrections.”

The remedies could cost the state millions. A Justice Reinvestment work group has been handed a figure of $33 million. Other bills and other options could add many millions more.

One of the bills seeks to update the state’s prison code that was last reviewed in 1970.