- Associated Press - Thursday, February 6, 2014

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Supporters of a Nebraska prison overhaul effort argued Thursday that the state needs to expand its supervised release programs and offer more services to help inmates return to society.

Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha said the current system forces inmates to leave prisons with inadequate medication, housing or oversight, and no real prospects for a job. The state’s prisons have collectively risen to 153 percent of their design capacity, with nearly 4,900 inmates.

Ashford has introduced two bills this year, one that would provide more supervision for former inmates and another to create programs that help them transition back to society.

The prison overhaul effort “is going to cost money,” Ashford said. “But relative to the cost of a new prison and the cost of recidivism, this is peanuts.”

Nebraska’s prison population and expenses soared with a 1993 “truth-in-sentencing law,” according to a report by the Platte Institute for Economic Research, a Nebraska think tank. The report noted that state corrections spending tripled between 1995 and 2005, due largely to the surge in prisoners. The report’s author, Marc Levin, said only Alabama had a more crowded prison system than Nebraska.

The truth-in-sentencing law forced inmates to stay behind bars longer because they were ineligible for parole, according to the report. Other factors included a large number of inmates with mental-health and substance-abused problems. The report recommended treatment and rehabilitation programs for non-violent inmates.

“We cannot brick-and-mortar ourselves out of this” with new prisons, Jim Vokal, the Platte Institute’s CEO, told the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee.

Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer said the department supports the proposal for supervised release if it is tacked onto an offender’s time behind bars. Schmaderer said electronic ankle monitoring for violent offenders 90 days after their release would help the department curb violent crime.

“We all benefit when an offender has the proper resources and oversight upon release from incarceration,” he said. “It gives the individuals the best chance of success, but also, as an aggregate, it can reduce recidivism.”

Gov. Dave Heineman has called for short-term measures to ease prison overcrowding until state officials agree to a longer-term solution. The immediate plan includes ending state agreements to house 20 federal inmates, adding 52 beds at the state Work Ethic Camp in McCook and shipping as many as 150 inmates to county jails. The governor’s plan also would increase security staff in the state prisons, at a total two-year cost of $9.1 million.

The prison system surfaced as an issue after several high-profile incidents involving the state Department of Correctional Services, including the Nikko Jenkins case. Jenkins is charged with four Omaha-area slayings after he was released from prison without supervision. He had threatened violence while incarcerated and begged corrections officials to commit him to a mental health institution. A state ombudsman’s report released in January faulted the department for its handling of the case.

Some states have reduced their prison populations with an overhaul of their drug-sentencing laws. North Carolina has cut its population by giving probation and parole officers more power to resolve drug violations without sending offenders back to prison. The new system requires increased drug-testing and treatment before an offender is sent back behind bars.

Nebraska Department of Correctional Services Director Michael Kenney said Thursday that he had minor, technical concerns about the bills but supported the overall effort to reduce the prison population and recidivism.


The bills are LB907 and LB999

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