Chair of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee says lawmakers have taken steps to ease prison overcrowding, but the legislation hasn’t had the effect anticipated.
State Sen. Laura Ebke of Crete wasn’t caught off guard by the ACLU lawsuit claiming state prison overcrowding violates inmate rights.
“Well, I can’t say that I’m surprised,” Ebke tells Nebraska Radio Network. “I sort of expected that this was going to happen.”
Ebke says it appears the ACLU backed off of its threats to take legal action when the legislature took up and approved criminal justice bills in 2015 aimed at reducing prison populations.
“And I don’t think that they really wanted to file this lawsuit,” Ebke says. “I think they felt obliged to file the lawsuit, because they didn’t see any turn around.”
Ebke says the Judiciary Committee can only play an indirect role in addressing the concerns raised by the lawsuit, filed in federal district court Wednesday morning. Ebke says the committee can consider further sentencing revisions, but the legislature has been reluctant to get rid of minimum sentencing and other proposals aimed at reducing prison populations.
In 2015, the Unicameral adopted two provisions aimed directly at the prison crowding problem. Legislative Bill 605 and LB 598 highlighted the session. They promised more than they could deliver, at least so far. The two bills changed sentencing provisions, created the Office of Inspector General of the prison system, and provided additional care for mentally ill prisoners.
Prisons remain crowded. The Nebraska prison system has a designed capacity of slightly more than 3,000 inmates with a current population of slightly more than 5,000 inmates. The ACLU lawsuit contends prisons have become overcrowded to the point of violating the constitutional rights of inmates.
Members of the Judiciary Committee toured all seven Nebraska prisons during the legislative interim. Ebke says both staff and inmates expressed concerns about safety, which she contends can be address with cooperation between the legislature and the Ricketts Administration.
AUDIO: Brent Martin reports [:45]