- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 30, 2014

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - A legislative committee will investigate Nebraska’s newest prison sentencing problems, which took place while officials were rounding up inmates who were released too early.

Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, the committee’s chairman, said Tuesday that members will look into the issue during an Oct. 10 hearing.

The committee is already reviewing problems in the Department of Correctional Services, including the premature release of hundreds of inmates. The Omaha World-Herald reported Sunday that the department also failed to follow a 2008 Nebraska Supreme Court ruling while rounding up those prisoners. The newspaper reported that the inmates released early were convicted of a combined 33 felonies and 102 misdemeanors for crimes committed while on release.

Lathrop said the ruling made clear those prisoners who committed crimes after their early release should have to serve the full time that they originally owed. Those who behaved were correctly given credit for the time they should have been behind bars.

The ruling also said those prisoners are accountable for the full time owed - without getting credit for the time they were out - if they were aware of the error but make no “reasonable attempt” to notify authorities. The exact number that would have known isn’t clear, but lawmakers and Gov. Dave Heineman have said many prisoners likely knew that the release dates were wrong.

Lathrop said the committee will try to learn why the 2008 ruling wasn’t followed. George Green, a former top lawyer at the department, told lawmakers several weeks ago that he never read a 2013 opinion that spelled out the proper way to calculate inmate sentences even though it was brought to his attention several times.

Heineman acknowledged Tuesday that the state’s handling of prisoners was flawed, but he argued that lawmakers also share responsibility.

“Look, there were a lot of mistakes made,” Heineman said. “We’ve accepted responsibility. We’re moving forward and we’re correcting those mistakes. But I’ve said over and over again, the Legislature has accountability too, as does the Judiciary Committee.”

Lathrop said the Legislature’s job is to make policy, not manage each department, but lawmakers have had to step in because of the problems.

“This is another example of the governor trying to distract from his own responsibility for an agency that he was charged with running,” Lathrop said. “The Legislature and the Judiciary Committee do not run the Department of Corrections.”

Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha, a member of the investigative committee, said lawmakers will likely need a long-term oversight committee to monitor the department.

“I firmly believe that whoever is elected the next governor needs to do a thorough house cleaning of the top leadership in the Department of Corrections,” he said. “Their mistakes have become so big that it’s going to have a lasting scar on the public trust.”

Mello has said he plans to introduce a bill that would establish an inspector general position which would scrutinize the department and answer to the Legislature.

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