- Associated Press - Sunday, June 4, 2017

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - When Nebraska lawmakers sought to ease prison crowding two years ago, they expanded probation services in hopes that more supervision and treatment would reduce the number of low-level felons behind bars.

But now, in the wake of this year’s budget crisis, some lawmakers fear cuts to probation services could undermine the work they’ve done so far.

“It’s probably not an end-of-the-world kind of thing, but it does raise some concerns,” said Sen. Laura Ebke of Crete, the chairwoman of the Judiciary Committee. “It shows where our priorities are - and aren’t. My fear is that if judges can’t send people to probation because probation is too packed, they’ll end up sending them to prison.”

The cuts came as lawmakers and Gov. Pete Ricketts sought to fill a projected $900 million revenue shortfall in the upcoming two-year budget. The Office of Probation Administration will see cuts totaling nearly $4.6 million from the current fiscal year, the upcoming fiscal year and unspent money that officials might otherwise have kept.

Officials with the Office of Probation Administration plan to continue the cost-cutting measures that began before lawmakers and Ricketts approved a new budget last month. Administrators delayed new hires, suspended a tuition reimbursement program and imposed tight restrictions on travel and purchases, said Eric Asboe, a judicial branch fiscal analyst.

The new budget cuts “are going to make us really cautious going forward,” Asboe said. “Since one of our goals is not to lay off or furlough anybody, it’s really going to affect services.”

Sen. Kate Bolz of Lincoln said she was particularly concerned that hiring delays could strain the state’s probation services, which are important to maintain public safety and ensure that offenders don’t commit new crimes.

Nebraska has 238 adult probation officers and 171 juvenile officers with varying caseloads. At least 27 probation-related jobs were unfilled as of March 31, according to a report submitted to lawmakers.

“If a probation officer is missing and cannot carry that caseload, it has a meaningful impact on those individuals (on probation) and their communities,” Bolz said.

The state’s probation officers oversee roughly 14,000 adults and 3,000 juveniles on probation. Those who deal with higher-risk probationers have lower caseloads so they can focus more on individuals, said Gene Cotter, a deputy administrator for the state probation office.

Cotter said officials will continue to focus on the highest-risk probationers who pose a greater public safety threat, which could mean fewer services for low-risk probationers.

“A loss of resources in any way, shape or form is certainly going to be a detriment to us,” he said.

The Office of Probation Administration provides a variety of services to newly released prison inmates, from housing assistance to substance abuse evaluations to job-training and anger management programs. Cotter said he didn’t yet know which services, if any, might get cut.

Lawmakers approved a wide-ranging prison overhaul package in 2015 that expanded probation and parole services for nonviolent offenders and required supervised release for felony offenders before they complete their sentences. The law passed amid concerns that the state prison system has grown increasingly crowded.

Even with the changes, prison crowding has persisted in part because of an increase in violent offenders. Nebraska’s prison system held nearly 5,200 inmates as of Friday in facilities that were collectively designed to house 3,275, according to the Department of Correctional Services.

Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Heavican warned lawmakers in January that, without adequate probation services, judges will err on the side of public safety and sentence criminal defendants to prison time even if it worsens the crowding problem.

“Our judges are not stupid,” he said at the time.

Nebraska spends roughly $35,000 annually to incarcerate a typical inmate, Heavican said, while supervision for a high-risk probationer costs between $8,000 and $10,000. Medium- and low-risk probationers cost an average of $3,000 to $4,000 to supervise.

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Follow Grant Schulte on Twitter at https://twitter.com/GrantSchulte

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