A special legislative committee believes more money must be poured into the state correctional system, despite a looming budget deficit.
Committee members recommend the legislature follow a plan outlined by the Justice Reinvestment Initiative by putting more money into programs that prepare inmates for life on the outside.
State Senator Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln chairs the committee and says Corrections Director Scott Frakes has many good ideas.
“We can have as many positive ideas as possible, but if they’re not funded, this is just going to continue for a long time,” Pansing Brooks tells Nebraska Radio Network.
Pansing Brooks says Corrections will be a major issue next session.
“I believe that that’s probably the most significant issue that we as legislators and those in the executive branch have is to make sure our communities are safe,” according to Pansing Brooks.
The Department of Correctional Services Investigative Committee concluded in its report overcrowding and a lack of money have led to nearly all, if not all, of the problems within the Nebraska prison system.
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. State law will mandate, beginning in 2020, that an emergency be called, taking away the discretion of the governor.
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 says that will be a priority, even though the state faces a budget deficit over the next two fiscal years of nearly $1 billion.
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.
AUDIO: Brent Martin reports [:55]