Gov. Dave Heineman denied during a legislative hearing he put pressure on the Department of Correctional Services, leading to the miscalculation of prison sentences and the premature release of inmates.
Heineman appeared before the Department of Correctional Services Special Investigative Committee Wednesday during a seven-hour hearing at the Capitol.
The special legislative committee has been looking into the premature release of inmates from prison. Hundreds of inmates were released, because the Department of Correctional Services failed to adhere to state Supreme Court rulings on prison sentences.
Committee chairman Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha pressed Gov. Heineman on whether his desire to reduce the prison population and avoid building a new prison created the problem.
“I can only think that the pressure from overcrowding was making people do things they shouldn’t have doing over there,” Lathrop stated during his questioning of Heineman.
Heineman earlier had stated he didn’t want to spend up to $150 million to build a new prison and didn’t perceive that legislators wanted to either.
The state prison system had been at 140% of capacity when Heineman first became governor 10 years ago. Overcrowding has grown worse, now up to approximately 157% of the designed capacity of state prisons.
Under questioning from Lathrop, Heineman said he had asked then-Corrections Director Bob Houston if he could manage the prison population and stated Houston had assured him he could.
Heineman denied he put pressure on Corrections to keep the prison population in check. He insisted the problem stems from department attorneys not following Supreme Court rulings and records not being kept correctly.
“Do we need a culture change down there? Absolutely, I agree with you (on) that,” Heineman responded to Lathrop. “And that’s going to take a long period of time in a wide variety of areas.”
Lathrop criticized two programs created by Corrections officials, stating the Re-entry Furlough Program released early 162 prisoners convicted of violent crimes. Lathrop claimed both it and the Temporary Alternative Placement program created by current Corrections Director Mike Kenney were created without the proper statutory authority. Kenney created TAP to deal with five inmates released prematurely who had only days left on their sentence. It allowed those prisoners to serve the remainder of their time at home monitored by ankle bracelets and weekly visits to parole officers.
Attorney General Jon Bruning has disputed Lathrop’s conclusions about the programs. Heineman has stated he has relied on Bruning’s legal analysis of the programs.
The Department of Correctional Services ignored two state Supreme Court rulings, releasing 200 inmates early and setting early release dates for 550 others. The governor’s office and Corrections officials reported 306 inmates were released prematurely by the department. Many inmates received credit for time served in the community without incident. No inmates remain at large.
AUDIO: Brent Martin reports [:50]