Group Studying Why Prison Population is Up While Crime Declines

Columbus Telegram

By JoAnne Young

LINCOLN — Crime decreased 20 percent in Nebraska over the past 10 years, and adult arrests decreased 15 percent.

So why has Nebraska’s inmate population climbed 17 percent? Why are the state’s prisons at 157 percent of capacity? And what might explain the growth spike over the past two years?

A group of high ranking justice and state officials, along with the Council of State Governments Justice Center, are working to answer those and other prison questions, such as how to reduce corrections spending, lower the rate of repeat crimes and increase public safety.

The group, which met Tuesday in Lincoln, is composed of Gov. Dave Heineman, Chief Justice Mike Heavican and Speaker Greg Adams, plus members of the Legislature, law enforcement, courts and attorneys.

Marc Pelka, program director for the justice reinvestment project, offered facts for the group to consider.

* Since 2009, people admitted to prisons because of new sentences and parole violations have climbed 30 percent.

* Admissions for certain offenses increased disproportionately, including drug crimes, theft, assault, driving under the influence and weapons charges. Over 10 years, DUI admissions grew 230 percent, and those admitted for weapons crimes climbed 180 percent.

* Criminal penalties also have been enhanced, including those for possession of methamphetamine in 2005, motor vehicle homicide and DUI in 2006 and 2011, and weapons crimes in 2009.

* Felony theft thresholds of as low as $500 result in prison sentences. The number of sentences to prison for theft in the $500 to $1,500 range is about 175 a year, with an average minimum sentence of 1.5 years and a cost of $8.5 million to house those prisoners.

* The volume of revoked paroles and parolees returning to prison spiked in 2013.

People convicted of crimes in Nebraska are more likely to get prison sentences than criminals in many other states, Pelka said. The state’s judges use probation less often than the national average and less often than states that use justice reinvestment to guide their practices.

In 2012, 74 percent of those sentenced in Nebraska went to prison or county jails. Twenty-two percent were sentenced to probation, and about one third of those included some jail time. In Idaho, 58 percent got probation only, and in Kansas, 69 percent got probation only.

One question that comes up often is whether there are too many nonviolent offenders in Nebraska’s prisons.

Pelka noted a difference in how rural and urban areas sentence criminals for the lowest class of felonies, felony IV convictions. The lowest percent of felony probation sentences was in the Lincoln and Omaha areas and highest in southeast and north-central Nebraska and the Panhandle.

Members of the group said a number of factors may come into play in explaining that trend. For one thing, according to Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer, there is a question of whether crime classified as nonviolent, such as terroristic threats, is actually nonviolent.

Another reason might be that criminals convicted in urban areas may tend to have longer criminal histories.

There are reasons why judges shy away from probation, two judges said.

“What happens a lot of times … somebody just simply wore out their probation welcome,” said Nebraska District Court Judge Leo Dobrovolny.

And what, said Lancaster County Attorney Joe Kelly, do you want to tell crime victims when they look at that record and see the person has gotten probation again?

“I think those citizens would prefer that there would be more time,” Kelly said.

The group talked about the issues for two and a-half hours, and many of those on the work group said it was a great discussion that has been needed for a long time.

“There are a lot of options that people are willing to pursue, but clearly we need more data in more complete detail,” Heineman said.

“This discussion tells us we’d better make sure we do this one right.”

The group will meet again Oct. 22 and then again in December. A justice reinvestment report is due from the group in September 2015.