Deadline looms for Nebraska to reduce prison overcrowding

LINCOLN — Nebraska prison and parole officials say they’re forging ahead with state-mandated plans to reduce overcrowding in the correctional system, but some lawmakers are worried that the agencies will miss a looming deadline, forcing them to take more drastic action.

The Department of Correctional Services and the Board of Parole highlighted the steps they’ve taken in a report to the Legislature this month but offered few specifics on the progress they’ve made so far.

Some lawmakers said they’re concerned that prison officials aren’t doing enough to prepare and aren’t letting senators know what resources they need to do the job.

“I would have liked to have gotten more specifics,” said Sen. Laura Ebke, chairwoman of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee. “If an emergency is declared, how long is it going to take them to get ramped up?”

The Corrections Department faces a July 1, 2020, deadline — imposed by the Legislature — to lower its inmate population to 140 percent of what its facilities were designed to hold. If the department falls short of that target, the prisons will fall into an automatic “overcrowding emergency” that will force state officials to consider paroling all eligible inmates right away.

As of last week, the overcrowding was worse than when lawmakers approved a high-profile prison reform package in 2015. Nebraska’s prisons housed 5,338 inmates last week in facilities that were designed to hold 3,375, placing the population at roughly 158 percent of its capacity, according to the Corrections Department.

In 2014, when state officials were developing their plan to relieve crowding, Nebraska’s prisons housed 5,130 inmates in facilities that were designed to hold 3,275 — roughly 157 percent of capacity.

Corrections Director Scott Frakes expressed optimism last year that prison officials would meet the deadline, but it’s not clear whether he still believes that to be the case. A department spokeswoman said last week that Frakes was out of the office and not available to answer questions.

Ebke said the report submitted to lawmakers was “not very helpful” and fell short of its purpose of telling the Legislature what’s needed to solve the problem.

“This is something we should be thinking about now, rather than waiting until 2020,” she said.

Nebraska Board of Parole Chairwoman Rosalyn Cotton said board members are working to parole more inmates but aren’t going to compromise public safety to do it. Asked whether she thinks that the board will make the deadline and if it needs more resources from lawmakers, Cotton said, “We will continue to do the best we can.”

Cotton said part of the crowding problem is driven by inmates who are released on parole, reoffend and get sent back to prison, even after they’ve completed rehabilitation programs.

To compensate, Cotton said the board recently started to set inmates up for parole hearings up to two years before they’re eligible. Scheduling earlier gives inmates more time and a stronger incentive to get life-skills training, anger management education and treatment for addictions and other problems, she said.

“What the public doesn’t always understand is there are times when the Board of Parole and Department of Correctional Services work very hard to get these individuals the programming they need, and things still go south,” Cotton said. “There’s no one here who’s not doing everything they can.”

Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha said lawmakers imposed the 2020 deadline to hold department officials accountable for the changes that needed to be made and to avoid the prospect of federal government intervention. But after three years of waiting and watching, Krist said he doesn’t think that the department will make the deadline.

“I don’t wish that on us, but right now, I think it’s inevitable,” he said.

Krist, who leaves office in January, said lawmakers need to invest more in probation services and the courts to reduce the influx of new inmates into Nebraska’s prisons but that they haven’t done so because of budget shortfalls.

“We’re asking the judicial branch to do more with less, and we do it every year,” he said.

Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln said she’s considering legislation for next year to help the Corrections Department prepare for a large number of paroles. Pansing Brooks said she doesn’t believe that the department is doing enough right now.

“I’m very concerned,” she said. “This has to do with the safety of our community and making sure we aren’t precipitously releasing people. We have to sit down together as multiple branches (of government) and have a plan.”

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