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.]