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.”