- Associated Press - Saturday, June 6, 2015

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska lawmakers spent years building the state’s tough-on-crime reputation with policies that sent more thieves, drug offenders and parole violators to prison.

But as prison populations swelled, costs soared and civil liberties groups threatened lawsuits, officials turned to a new strategy: Spending more up-front in hopes of reducing inmate numbers and ultimately saving money.

Nebraska is among a growing number of states that have shifted to treatment and rehabilitation instead of building more prisons. State officials have spent the last two years overhauling the justice system with expanded mental health and substance abuse programs, juvenile services, sentencing reforms and greater post-release inmate supervision.

States such as Alabama and North Carolina have taken similar steps to ease crowding, and a shift toward rehabilitation in Texas helped the state close prisons.

Nebraska’s new “smart on crime” approach comes amid a bevy of problems - from the premature release of hundreds of inmates to a deadly riot - that have plagued the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services.

With the prison population far over the system’s design capacity, the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska threatened to sue, and lawmakers expressed concern that federal courts might intervene and order population reductions as the U.S. Supreme Court did for California in 2011. As of May 31, Nebraska’s prison population was 5,193, bringing the system to 159 percent of its design capacity, and the problem was expected to worsen without changes.

“We want the people who are nonviolent to be able to go into probation, take the courses they need and get out,” said Nebraska state Sen. Les Seiler, chairman of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee. “With the violent offenders, we want to protect the public’s safety and make sure they serve their terms. But we also want to make sure they’re getting counseling and supervision when they integrate back into the community.”

The Department of Correctional Services will get roughly $2.5 million in additional funding per year to hire 59 more security staffers, and $1.2 million for 14 new behavioral health positions, such as chemical dependency counselors and mental health practitioners.

The money was approved amid concerns that state prisons lack services for inmates and that crowding had worsened even as crime rates declined. Lawmakers added the money before a prison riot earlier this month that left two prisoners dead. Some of the inmates had complained the prison wasn’t offering enough rehabilitation programming.

The reforms follow a review that began in 2013 by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, a national nonprofit that has worked with 21 states on prison crowding and related problems. Marc Pelka, the group’s program director, said more states have sought changes as research determined how to change inmate behavior and officials grew frustrated with rising prison costs.

“I think there’s been a breakthrough, a real watershed moment politically of bipartisan support for more effective criminal justice policy,” Pelka said.

The group’s research found that Nebraska housed a large number of low-level, nonviolent offenders with short sentences. Many were freed without being treated for addictions, mental illnesses and behavioral problems such as anger management. Some inmates were released without adequate supervision, and returned to prison after violating their parole or committing new crimes.

“You have a revolving door, with offenders coming into prison for a short amount of time and then coming back out into our neighborhoods with no parole supervision,” said Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha, who has worked extensively on state prison problems. “Some people are spending a year in prison, and arguably coming out worse than they were going in.”

Another cause of crowding was felony sentences for crimes such as theft. Nebraska’s current law sets a $500 threshold for a theft to qualify as a felony, a number that hadn’t been updated for inflation since 1992. Roughly 175 people are sent to prison each year for felony thefts between $500 and $1,500, at a cost of $8.5 million. The overhaul law sponsored by Mello and approved last month institutes a $1,500 threshold before a crime is classified as a felony.

Nebraska’s move follows repeated problems in the state’s corrections department.

The department was criticized for its handling of Nikko Jenkins, an inmate who begged for a psychiatric commitment while incarcerated, cut his face with floor tiles and threatened to kill people. Less than a month after his discharge in July 2013, he shot and killed four people in Omaha in a 10-day spree.

Next came news that corrections officials had ignored a Nebraska Supreme Court ruling spelling out the correct way to calculate prisoner sentences, leading the state to release hundreds of inmates early.

The department came under scrutiny yet again when prisoners rioted at the Nebraska State Correctional Institution in May.

Gov. Pete Ricketts said he plans to continue the reform effort with help from his new corrections director, Scott Frakes, who is conducting his own review of the prison system.

“We’re just at the beginning of the process of corrections reform and changing the culture,” said Ricketts, a Republican. “But I think we’re seeing very positive steps. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but we’re headed in the right direction.”

The effort drew support from taxpayer groups that usually lobby against new spending.

Jim Vokal, chief executive officer of the Omaha-based Platte Institute, a free-market think tank, said his group thinks the changes will save tax money and reduce labor shortages by helping train inmates for trades where workers are scarce.

“This is an economic opportunity,” Vokal said. “We’re investing in programs that are going to keep them out of prison and give them an opportunity to be employable. If we’re constantly putting them back in prison, they have no chance.”

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