A nearly $15 million prison reform measure has advanced in the Unicameral, an attempt to ease prison overcrowding while maintaining public safety.
Judiciary Committee chairman, Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, told colleagues during legislative flood debate the intent of LB 907 is two-fold, to keep non-violent offenders out of prison and to keep inmates from returning once released from prison.
It won preliminary approval on a 36 to nothing vote with nine senators not voting.
Ashford said vocational education and training programs cut in the past for budgetary reasons will return to the prisons so inmates can learn a skill and find a job upon release.
“We must replace those vocational programs, because what I have heard from inmates, from advocates, from prison officials, probation, parole, no matter who it is; what I have learned is that without a job there’s no hope,” Ashford stated.
In addition, mental health and substance abuse programs will return to the prisons.
Sen. Les Seiler of Hastings applauded the concentration on mental health and substance abuse programs, which he said will get to the root of the problem and will keep inmates from returning to prison.
“When you’re talking about prisoners screaming all night, because of mental problems. Other prisoners can’t sleep. They admit they get short-tempered. Fights go on. It’s a real disaster in humanity out there and we need to get this stopped and get it back on the right track,” Seiler said.
Ashford said about 31% of Nebraska’s prisoners suffer from mental illness.
Ashford said those in state prisons are fairly evenly split between violent and non-violent offenders.
“But, generally it’s about 50-50, that 50% of our inmates are there for everything from drug and alcohol abuse-types of crimes to fraud to writing bad checks to all the way up to the most heinous crimes; I mean people who are never going to get out at all,” according to Ashford.
Nebraska will rely more on drug courts, family courts and other alternative court settings aimed at moving offenders away from prison into other forms of punishment, such as probation and treatment.
Prisoners would come under increase supervision, designed to keep them from returning to prison.
Nebraska houses about 4,600 prisoners, well above the designed capacity of 3,175 inmates.
The bill comes with a hefty price tag: $14.5 million. Ashford pointed out, though, that that is far less than the cost of building a new prison, estimated at between $100-and-150-million.