On January 14, members of Nebraska’s Unicameral Legislature convened to review proposals for tackling state prison overcrowding while also addressing the rights of victims and increasing public safety.
Under a policy framework developed by Nebraska’s Justice Reinvestment Working Group and contained in a report released today, the number of people leaving prison without supervision in Nebraska would be slashed by 70 percent, up to $306.4 million in corrections spending could be averted over the next five years, and $32.8 million would be invested in recidivism-reduction strategies.
More than 50 senators, legislative staff, and criminal justice stakeholders packed into a room in the Nebraska State Capitol for today’s briefing from the Council of State Government (CSG) Justice Center staff with opening remarks from state senators who arranged the event: Les Seiler, Judiciary Committee chair; Bob Krist, Executive Board chair; and Heath Mello, Appropriations Committee chair. The three senators were members of the Justice Reinvestment Working Group, which developed the 15 policy recommendations discussed during the briefing and described in the CSG Justice Center’s report released during the event, titled “Justice Reinvestment in Nebraska: Analysis and Policy Framework.”
“This report provides an outline for how the state could improve our corrections system and address the need to reduce prison overcrowding,” said Sen. Seiler (pictured right). “The legislature must immediately address developing legislation this session based on the findings of this report and others before the legislature and the input of all stakeholders across the criminal justice system.”
The Justice Reinvestment Working Group convened its first meeting in June 2014 and met four times over the last six months to review data analyzed by the CSG Justice Center. In December 2014, the working group set forward a policy framework for the legislature’s consideration that would hold people convicted of the lowest-level felonies accountable with probation and treatment, reduce the number of people leaving prison unsupervised, and strengthen parole supervision. The 19-member working group was co-chaired by Chief Justice Michael Heavican as well as then-Gov. Dave Heineman and then-Speaker Greg Adams, both of whom retired from their offices this year due to term limits. State lawmakers, judiciary members, corrections officials, county and defense attorneys, and local law enforcement executives were also members of the working group.
“While spending on corrections in Nebraska continues to grow substantially, it is not yielding the intended results,” said Sen. Mello. “The policy recommendations are tough, smart, and fiscally sustainable. With the help from our colleagues in the legislature, we can move forward and put these proposals into law.”
Nebraska prisons currently house more than one-and-a-half times as many men and women as they were designed for, and, if nothing is done, will become even more crowded and costly in the years to come. The prison population is projected to swell from 5,221 people (159 percent of capacity) at the close of 2014 to 5,581 people (170 percent of capacity) by FY2020. The Nebraska Department of Correctional Services has set forward a proposal for spending $261.6 million to build enough prison beds to bring state prisons down to 128 percent of capacity by FY2019. The proposal would do nothing, however, to halt the growing prison population or curb crime and no construction has been funded or scheduled.
The working group’s policy framework is projected to reduce the prison population by 10 percent over five years while increasing accountability for those who commit crimes, protecting victim rights, strengthening the reentry process for people released from prison, and making communities safer.
“This plan includes innovative strategies that will strengthen supervision in the community, address victims’ needs and hold people convicted of crimes accountable for their actions,” said Sen. Krist. “After undergoing a comprehensive criminal justice system analysis, we cannot kick the can down the road and expect the corrections system to improve without making substantial policy changes that will keep our communities safe.”
The legislature will consider the Justice Reinvestment Policy Framework during the 2015 session.