Former state Corrections Director Bob Houston today denied pressure to ease prison overcrowding and avoid building a costly new prison led to the miscalculation of prison sentences.
The miscalculation of prison sentences over the past few years led the Department of Correctional Services to release more than 300 inmates prematurely.
The new department director has suspended employees in light of the scandal and promises other disciplinary actions. The governor has ordered the Nebraska State Patrol to investigate possible criminal investigation.
The legislature held a day-long hearing at the Capitol on the issue today, discussing how the early releases might have developed with the former director of the Department of Correctional Services, who ran the department at the time.
Houston told state Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha he likely should have been notified about a Supreme Court opinion that ruled inmates could not be awarded credit for good time served until they completed mandatory minimum sentences.
“If the attorneys in their review and their discussion with the Attorney General’s office felt that there was something that had to change in policy or calculation, then that should have been brought to me,” Houston replied when asked by Lathrop.
“So, the reason, if there was a reason not to tell you, the director, it would be this doesn’t look like a change at all,” Lathrop told Houston.
“I don’t know if I’d put it exactly like that, but I think you’re in the realm of how I would put it,” Houston stated.
Houston denied the department ignored the Supreme Court ruling so it could keep the state prison population in check and avoid the expense of building a new prison.
A 2006 study of Nebraska’s prison system concluded that adding new beds could cost as much as $88 million upfront for 1,300 more beds and another $52 million to add 3,000 more.
Lathrop referred to an email exchange published by the Omaha World-Herald in which a veteran corrections employee suggested the department should ignore a state Supreme Court ruling to change sentencing guidelines, because Houston wanted to keep the prison population down and avoid the expense of building a new prison.
“And she does make reference to your wishes, or your policy, or something of that nature,” Lathrop stated.
“My interest to not grow the population beyond where it needs to grow,” Houston interjected.
“So, to what extent have you communicated that interest to her or other members or other staff at the department of corrections?” Lathrop asked.
“Everybody’s worried about crowding,” was Houston’s reply.
Houston denied Gov. Dave Heineman ever instructed him to avoid building a new prison at all costs.
“I had no mandates that we’re not going to do construction no matter what; none,” Houston told the committee.
Houston added that prison overcrowding played a role, but only a minor role, in decisions on whether to take credit for good time served from prison inmates, telling Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha discipline decisions on removing good time were based on individual inmate behavior.
Mello though pressed the issue.
“My question, I guess still involves in regards to, did the department purposely shy away from taking away good time to ease prison overcrowding?”
“You know that would be a fair statement. Yep,” Houston said after pausing a moment. “But I think it’s more driven less by that and more by what the real motivation is for an inmate.”
Houston left the department a little less than a year ago, telling committee members he had become a controversial figure and that it was time to go.
A couple of incidents toward the end of his tenure marred Houston’s reputation.
In the summer of 2013, inmate Jeremy Dobbe crashed into a mini-van driven by Joyce Meeks of Lincoln at an intersection in the city, killing her. In wake of the fatal crash, Houston ended an inmate driving program.
Then, in August of last year, Nikko Jenkins killed four in Omaha after being released early from prison.