January 26, 2015

Attorney General Peterson issues caution about moves to ease prison overcrowding

Attorney General Doug Peterson

Attorney General Doug Peterson

Attorney General Doug Peterson cautions that the Unicameral needs to be careful as it considers revising the criminal code in an effort to reduce the prison population.

Peterson says some of the discussion about reducing the prison population concerns him.

“There have been studies that have come out, certainly talking about the overpopulation issue,” Peterson tells Nebraska Radio Network. “We don’t want that to be such a primary focus that we lose also the recognition that there are actually people out there who have shown through their criminal records that they are dangerous and do need to be incarcerated.”

Nebraska’s prison population has topped 5,000 inmates and stands at nearly 160% of designed capacity.

A study during the legislative interim by a 19-member Justice Reinvestment Working Group suggests a revision of the state criminal code could keep some non-violent offenders out of prison. The group, with members from all three branches of state government, was guided by a consultant from the Council of State Governments Justice Center.

The study further suggests a greater use of probation as well as county jails for those sentenced to a year or less could ease crowded conditions.

Peterson says he understands there are creative ways to reduce the prison population, but he says any steps must be taken cautiously.

“We look at the public safety issue and I believe that as the Attorney General’s office, I have to be echoing the voices of law enforcement that say let’s recognize that in this overcrowding issue there are some people that do need to be incarcerated,” according to Peterson.

Peterson says care must be taken if legislators undertake the rewriting of the state criminal code.

“People who are dangerous, who we’ve tried other options within our justice system should be in jail and we would hate to see those people not be incarcerated simply because the overcrowding issue was such a concern to the legislature that they compromise safety.”

The legislature hopes changes within prison and with the state criminal code will reduce the prison population and avoid spending $261 million to add prison beds. It is estimated the state will have to spend between $33-to-45 million to implement changes to reduce prison populations.

Senators say Gov. Ricketts on board with prison reform (AUDIO)

Sen. Les Seiler addresses the news media. Sen. Heath Mello and Sen. Paul Schumacher (left to right) look on

Sen. Les Seiler addresses the news media. Sen. Heath Mello and Sen. Paul Schumacher (left to right) look on.

State senators pushing for prison reform say the new governor is on board with the effort.

A number of bills have been filed this legislative session seeking to reduce prison population through reform.

Judiciary Committee Chairman, Sen. Les Seiler of Hastings, says the legislature will work closely with new Corrections Director Scott Frakes, who has worked in the state of Washington’s prison system for 32 years, as it considers legislation which would affect how prisons operate in Nebraska.

“We need to coordinate our policy with what he is actually going to administer and get his guidelines on what he wants to do and once we get that we’ll have a very solid system to correcting these problems,” according to Seiler.

A group of senators spent the interim studying problems with the state Department of Correctional Services, primarily the miscalculation of prison sentences that led to the premature release of hundreds of inmates.

In addition, a consultant with the Council of State Governments Justice Center guided the study of a 19-member Justice Reinvestment Working Group with members from all three branches of state government. Various recommendations have been made to reduce the prison population to 138% of capacity without adding prison space.

The prison population in Nebraska has passed 5,000 inmates, 159% of designed capacity.

The group of state senators hope changes within prison and with the state criminal code will reduce the prison population and avoid spending $261 million to add prison beds.

Appropriations Committee Chairman, Senator Heath Mello of Omaha, says the appointment of Frakes by Gov. Pete Ricketts indicates how serious Ricketts takes the problem.

“I think to some extent, we need to keep our eyes on the ball and the bigger picture is the governor knows this is a big priority, it’s a shared priority, and that we’re going to have to work with each other throughout the remainder of the session, both on the fiscal end of the house as well as the policy end in the Judiciary Committee to find the solutions to move the state forward,” Mello says.

Recommendations from the Council of State Governments study are estimated by its Justice Center to cost $33 million over a five-year period. Mello estimates the cost closer to $45 million.

It’s not just the expense of adding prison beds or building a new prison senators want to avoid. They also worry about a lawsuit. Both the ACLU and the Justice Department have warned state officials they could file a lawsuit if the prison population isn’t brought below 140% of capacity, the threshold that triggers the designation of an emergency in Nebraska.

AUDIO:  Brent Martin reports [1 min.]

Senators propose changes to reduce prison population

Sen. Bob Krist speaks to reporters during a news conference in the Capitol Rotunda

Sen. Bob Krist speaks to reporters during a news conference in the Capitol Rotunda

State senators who held hearings throughout the interim on various problems with the state prison system have proposed legislation for this session.

Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha says it is important for legislators to continue the discussion about prison reform now that the session has started.

“But it’s also very important that we move in a direction, because we will face litigation. The ACLU is watching. The Department of Justice is watching,” Krist tells reporters during a news conference at the Capitol. “We have an obligation to clean up what is a culture in the Department of Corrections.”

Bills filed will seek changes in state law to send fewer non-violent criminals to state prisons and will offer substance abuse treatment and job training to keep inmates from returning to prison.

The prison population in Nebraska has passed 5,000 inmates, 159% of designed capacity.

The group of state senators hope changes within prison and with the state criminal code will reduce the prison population and avoid spending $261 million to add prison beds.

Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha, Appropriations Committee chairman, cautions though that the legislature will be spending money, even as it tries to keep from building a new prison.

“But the reality is by the end of this legislative session we have to be able to provide Nebraskans a road map of how we’re going to move forward with our overcrowded prisons and how we are going to address what has been determined through a lot of investigation, a lot of hard work, and over 50 hours of public hearings of what’s going to be done to fix what we know is a lack of oversight over the Department of Corrections,” according to Mello.

A consultant with the Council of State Governments Justice Center guided the study of a 19-member Justice Reinvestment Working Group with members from all three branches of state government. Various recommendations have made to reduce the prison population to 138% of capacity without adding prison space.

Another committee reviewed the missteps that led to the release of Nikko Jenkins, convicted of killing four in Omaha after being released from prison as well as the disclosure in an Omaha World Herald special report that the Department of Correctional Services had been miscalculating prisons sentences, leading to the premature release of hundreds of inmates.

Even as senators seek to avoid spending $261 million on new prison beds, it is estimated the state will have to spend at least $33 million over a five-year period to incorporate the changes proposed in the legislation filed this session. Appropriations Committee chairman Mello estimates the cost might actually total closer to $45 million.

Judiciary Committee Chairman, Sen. Les Seiler of Hastings, says Nebraska must get back to training prison inmates for jobs once released from prison as well as treating inmates to overcome the addictions or mental problems that keep them returning to prison.

“The reason many of these people are back in prison time and time again is because one; (when) they come out of prison they have either mental health problems or they don’t have any training whatsoever,” according to Seiler. “And it doesn’t take them long to get back in the old habits of what they had that got them there in the first place.”

 

Gov. Ricketts sees trade missions as key to economic growth (AUDIO)

Gov. Pete Ricketts answers questions from reporters after his State of the State address

Gov. Pete Ricketts answers questions from reporters after his State of the State address

Gov. Pete Ricketts emphasized economic development in his State of the State address and says exports will be a key to economic growth.

Ricketts says Nebraska needs to be strategic and aggressive in pursuing trade missions abroad.

“I hope to be able to do two a year to make sure we are making those connections, opening up those doors for our producers, and our manufacturers, and our business people here in the state,” Ricketts tells reporters during a question and answer period after the State of the State address. “So, again that’s one of things we can do to really grow the economy is find those export opportunities.”

Ricketts says those opportunities are especially available to Nebraska farmers and ranchers. He says the state must take advantage of rising standards of living in other countries.

“That’s primarily occurring in the developing world. Those people are demanding more protein,” Ricketts says. “And so those are the kind of export opportunities that we have here in the state, to feed that growing world. So, I think agriculture is a huge opportunity for us.”’

In the State of the State address, Ricketts outlined four major priorities of his administration, stating they were interconnected with his overall theme of growing Nebraska. The first was strengthening the economy, but two others, reducing taxes and easing regulations, he touted as helping improve the business climate in Nebraska, fostering job growth.

Ricketts also tied the fourth, expanding educational opportunities, into growing the economy.

Ricketts proposes funding a $250,000 pilot program to form a public-private partnership to create a career and vocational training program modeled after a similar program in Michigan.

AUDIO:  Brent Martin reports [:45]

Gov. Ricketts focuses on economy in State of the State address (AUDIO)

Gov. Pete Ricketts delivers his first State of the State address in the Norris Legislative Chamber

Gov. Pete Ricketts delivers his first State of the State address in the Norris Legislative Chamber

Gov. Pete Ricketts proposed strengthening the state economy, cutting taxes, cutting regulations, and expanding educational opportunities in his first State of the State address.

Ricketts told lawmakers gathered in the legislative chamber he will bring his years of business experience at family-owned TD Ameritrade to work for the state.

“To that end, I’ve crafted a budget, a blueprint that slows the growth of spending, provides for property tax relief, has room to make improvements in critical areas such as HHS and Corrections, and also funds the essential services of state government,” Ricketts stated.

Ricketts outlined his priorities for this legislative session.

“I’m eager to work with you on four major priorities to grow Nebraska,” Ricketts stated. “The first is strengthening our economy and creating jobs; second, reducing taxes; third, easing regulatory burdens; and additionally, expanding educational opportunities.”

Ricketts said he was proud to add new State Economic Development Director Brenda Hicks-Sorensen to recruit business and help Nebraska realize untapped potential.

“But creating jobs is more than just a marketing focus or incentives,” according to Ricketts, “We need to evaluate what we’re doing to encourage small business to expand and grow. We need to have a plan to attract business investment as well as business relocations and we need to be strategic and aggressive about trade opportunities.”

Ricketts said there is no better place to start expanding exports than in agriculture.

Job creation in part, according to Ricketts, depends on a tax climate that encourages growth.

“We have a lot of work to do to stay competitive with our neighboring states,” Ricketts stated. “And staying competitive is something that is often overlooked when we talk about jobs. We need to attract new individuals and families to Nebraska. We have a great way of life and great jobs to offer. Now, we need to highlight these and invite people to come and make Nebraska their home.”

Gov. Ricketts greets lawmakers prior to delivering his speech.

Gov. Ricketts greets lawmakers prior to delivering his speech.

Ricketts has proposed adding $60 million annually to the state property tax relief fund. He also supports lowering the percentage at which agricultural land is assessed from 75% of market value to 65% over a three year period.

Ricketts also said two state departments in particular need a culture change.

Ricketts said problems with the Department of Health and Human Services prevent the state from fully addressing the needs of the most vulnerable.

“We need a culture in our state agencies that is people-centric. The people who we help don’t fit neatly into the silos we’ve created. They use services across all of our divisions. And we need a system that will help the entire person and help them reach their full potential and if possible, live a life free of public assistance,” Ricketts stated.

Ricketts added he is counting on new state Corrections Director Scott Frakes to suggest needed changes when he begins his work in early February.

Ricketts made a reference to the prison sentence miscalculation scandal that released hundreds of prison inmates prematurely.

“Inmates released early by mistake threaten not only the public safety, but also the public’s trust in their government,” Ricketts said. “Nobody in Corrections wanted these mistakes to occur, but they did, and we have got to do better.

Ricketts said Frakes will create a culture of accountability, common sense, and excellence.

AUDIO:  Gov. Pete Ricketts delivers his first State of the State address. [30 min.]