Gov. Dave Heineman has announced disciplinary action against employees involved in the prison sentencing scandal and vows to be transparent as the investigation continues.
Heineman dismisses any notion that employees in Department of Correctional Services ignored Supreme Court rulings on sentencing to reflect the governor’s desire to keep the prison population under control and avoid building a new prison.
“Not that I’m aware of, but let me go back to the prison capacity issue,” Heineman tells reporters. “Let me be very clear. I have been here 10 years. There hasn’t been a single Nebraska state senator who has called me or written me a letter saying, ‘Governor, we need to build a new prison.’”
Nebraska prisons have been over their capacity since Heineman has been in office.
State prisons now hold more than 5,000 inmates, nearly 160% of their capacity.
State lawmakers, worried the state might face a lawsuit, approved LB 907. The law established the 19-member Justice Reinvestment Working Group, with members from all three branches of state government. The group will work with the Council of State Governments Justice Center to review alternatives to prison. The Pew Charitable Trust and the United States Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance will also assist in the study.
State officials estimate building a new prison could cost as much as $150 million.
The working group’s policy recommendations are expected to be delivered at the end of the year.
The top two lawyers of the Department of Correctional Services took retirement, rather than face being fired. Two other Corrections employees have been suspended. Other disciplinary action could be forthcoming.
The department ignore two state Supreme Court rulings that affected sentencing. That resulted in sentences being miscalculated for approximately 600 prison inmates. Slightly more than 300 were released prematurely, due to the error.
State Corrections Director Mike Kenney announced disciplinary action late last week. Kenney took over for long-time Corrections Director Bob Houston, who took questions about the scandal from state lawmakers during a recent legislative hearing.
The Nebraska State Patrol is conducting a criminal investigation into the sentence miscalculations.
Heineman says the Department of Correctional Services must restore public confidence.
“Continue to make sure that we’ve corrected all mistakes and get back to operating this department on a day-to-day basis with a lot of hard work and regain the public’s trust,” Heineman says. “And that is going to take a long period of time.”
AUDIO: Brent Martin reports [:45]