- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 8, 2014

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman criticized lawmakers Wednesday for failing to pass his proposal that would have eliminated automatic “good time” credit for violent prisoners, while a leading senator on the issue said he won’t be pulled into a political spat.

Heineman’s remarks in both a news conference and a rare midweek newspaper column came two days before another legislative hearing in the investigation of Nebraska’s problem-plagued prison system and the case of Nikko Jenkins, who killed four people after being released.

The “good time” law also has become an issue in the tight race between Republican U.S. Rep. Lee Terry of Omaha and his Democratic challenger, state Sen. Brad Ashford. Terry, an eight-term congressman whom Heineman has endorsed, has tried to tag Ashford as soft on crime because he leads the Judiciary Committee which reviewed, and ultimately rejected, the Republican governor’s prisons proposal.

Heineman argued that lawmakers should have passed the measure he requested in January in response to the Jenkins case. Despite violent behavior and signs of mental illness, Jenkins was released in July 2013 and went on a 10-day killing spree in Omaha the following month. Jenkins was convicted of four counts of first-degree murder in April.

Heineman singled out Ashford and state Sen. Steve Lathrop, who leads the special committee tasked with investigating the Department of Correctional Services’ handling of the Jenkins case.

Current law allows inmates to receive one day of credit on their sentences for each day they spend in prison. The governor’s measure would only have allowed prisoners to qualify for “good time” if they participate in treatment programs for anger management, substance abuse, or other problems that require professional help.

“Changing the law from automatic ‘good time’ for criminals to making them earn ‘good time’ is common sense,” Heineman said.

But his measure faced scrutiny during a February hearing before the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, which Ashford leads and on which Lathrop sits. Lathrop then described the bill as an illusion because many prison treatment programs have long waiting lists. State prisons director Michael Kenney said at that hearing that the bill would allow prisoners to earn “good time” even if they were on the waiting list and not receiving treatment.

Last week, Lathrop blamed the Heineman administration for the state’s prison problems. GOP state chairman J.L. Spray called on Lathrop to resign as the prisons investigation committee head, arguing that he showed bias when criticizing the governor.

After Wednesday’s news conference, Lathrop said in a statement that he remains focused on finding out on what happened in the Jenkins case.

“This is an extremely serious issue and there are families of victims who deserve to know what really happened,” Lathrop said. “I plan to continue my job to find the truth in this matter … and I will not be pulled into any attempt to turn the murders of four innocent people into a political issue, no matter what.”

Ashford campaign manager Kurt Gonska called Heineman’s comments an effort to distract voters. Ashford noted during this year’s legislative session that Heineman previously sought to increase the amount of “good time” given to inmates.

“Brad is not running against the governor, whose own prison officials failed to follow the law and keep the public safe,” Gonska said.

The prisons investigation committee has subpoenaed state prison officials to testify Friday, including Kenney, who was appointed by Heineman.

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