- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 27, 2014

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - A group working on solutions to the state’s burgeoning prison population has learned that some of Nebraska’s laws and judicial practices may be part of the problem.

The working group, which includes the governor and the chief justice of the Nebraska Supreme Court, met Tuesday in Lincoln and heard reasons for the increase and possible solutions that could help the state avoid the expense of building another prison.

Marc Pelka, the program director for the Justice Reinvestment Program, which is a project of the Council of State Governments Justice Center, cited several of the reasons for the prison population increase, the Lincoln Journal Star reported (https://bit.ly/1opbPbJ ). Among them were longer sentences for some crimes and increases in the number of parole violators. Nebraska criminals also are more likely to get prison time than criminals in many other states, he said.

In 2012, nearly three-quarters of those sentenced in Nebraska went to prison or county jails. Twenty-two percent were sentenced to probation, and about a third of those given probation also were given some jail or prison time. The national average for sentences of probation was 27 percent.

As of July 31, the state had 57 percent more inmates than its prisons were designed to hold. But officials have said the number continues to increase despite a 20 percent drop in crime over the past 10 years.

There are reasons why Nebraska judges shy away from probation, two working group members said.

“What happens a lot of times … somebody just simply wore out their probation welcome,” said District Judge Leo Dobrovolny.

Joe Kelly, who is Lancaster County’s top prosecutor, said crime victims don’t like to see probation given to someone who already has had probation.

“I think those citizens would prefer that there would be more time” behind bars, Kelly said.

Pelka also cited Nebraska’s felony theft statute, in which stealing $500 in cash or goods can result in prison time. Raising that threshold could lead to misdemeanor charges, and jail or probation instead of prison.

The group will meet again in October and December. Its report is expected to be issued by September next year.

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Information from: Lincoln Journal Star, https://www.journalstar.com

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