A special legislative committee concludes overcrowding and a lack of money have led to nearly all, if not all, of the problems within the Nebraska prison system.
State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln chairs the Department of Correctional Services Investigative Committee.
“There’s no question that, without exception, all the problems our committee found are related to the lack of sufficient resources that is common cause of everything, or the underlying cause of everything,” Pansing Brooks tells Nebraska Radio Network.
Pansing Brooks says Corrections has found itself in a vicious cycle, in which a lack of staffing and programming prevents inmates from receiving the programming needed to prepare them for life on the outside. They serve their time and are released only to commit another crime and return to prison where the cycle begins again.
Nebraska houses 5,300 inmates in 10 prisons with 1,000 former inmates on parole. It has nearly 2,000 more inmates that its prisons are designed to hold, prompting the worries about a federal lawsuit. A prison population that tops 140% of designed capacity can be considered an official emergency and most certainly invites a lawsuit against the state, either from the American Civil Liberties Union or from the United States Department of Justice.
The committee recommends more money for Corrections and a thorough review of state criminal laws to shift non-violent offenders to parole and treatment rather than prison.
Pansing Brooks suggests the atmosphere within the Ricketts Administration of keeping costs down, or even cutting state services, has kept Corrections officials from requesting the money they need.
“I think it’s quite clear that they cannot continue to balance our state budget on the back of Correctional cuts,” Pansing Brooks says.
The committee also recommends the legislature review the state criminal code to place non-violent offenders on probation or in programs rather than in prison. Pansing Brooks says it’s hard to say if there are people in Nebraska prisons who should not be there.
“There is a belief that there are people in there that would be better served through probation, with community resources rather than taking state dollars and just putting the people away; for what good?”
State Corrections Director Scott Frakes has requested $26 million to enlarge the Community Corrections Center in Lincoln, adding 160 beds in three years. Job training has also been touted as a method to help inmates prepare for release. It is estimated the programs will cost between $33 and 45 million over the next five years.
State officials have resisted considering any plans to build a new prison with its estimated price tag of $261 million.
The Unicameral established the special investigative committee in 2014 to examine the circumstances behind the release of Nikko Jenkins who killed four people in Omaha shortly after his mandated release from prison in 2013. It later expanded its scope when it came to light that hundreds of inmates had been released from state prisons prematurely.