Nebraska lawmakers seek to expand problem-solving courts, a less costly alternative to prison

LINCOLN — A proven, and lower-cost, alternative to a prison sentence would get a substantial boost in funding under a preliminary recommendation by a state legislative committee.

Four existing “problem-solving courts” in the state — including a veterans treatment court in Omaha and a drug court in Saunders County — would be expanded via a $2.4 million a year boost in funding. That would allow 120 additional criminal offenders a year to be treated using strict probation programs rather than being sent to more expensive prison beds.

The move should save money, and could help relieve chronic overcrowding in state prisons that has spawned a federal civil rights lawsuit against the State of Nebraska. The yearly cost of supervising someone in a problem-solving court is $2,865 compared to an average cost of $38,627 for prison, according to state probation office figures.

“This is money well spent on programs that have proven to be successful,” said State Sen. John Stinner of Gering, who chairs the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee.

 

Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, who has chaired legislative studies into the problems in the state prison system and heads the Judiciary Committee, said his committee is still looking at whether sentencing reform or other steps should be taken this year to address overcrowding.

The idea of beefing up problem-solving courts grew out of a joint meeting of the Appropriations and Judiciary Committees. Lawmakers have been working in recent years to see what the Legislature can do to address the state’s prison overcrowding, which ranks as the worst or second-worst in the U.S. Nebraska prisons, with the recent opening of a 160-bed unit for women, now hold about 1,800 more inmates than their design capacity.

About 70 percent of problem-solving court participants successfully complete the 12- to 18-month programs, according to court statistics. Under the supervision of a judge and probation officers, they must comply with the strict rules about attending rehabilitation and treatment classes, staying off drugs and holding jobs. About 91 percent of graduates remained crime-free after a year and 94 percent were employed, according to an analysis in 2015.

About 1,000 people a year are sentenced to the 26 problem-solving courts across the state, the probation office said, which saves the state about $15 million a year.

Lincoln Sen. Kate Bolz, who has also been active in corrections issues, said that existing problem-solving courts in southeast Nebraska, the Kearney/Grand Island area and Douglas and Saunders Counties were chosen because they could most quickly expand and begin diverting offenders from prison.

About $3.8 million a year is now spent on problem-solving courts, according to Corey Steel, the state court administrator. The $2.4 million, he said, would be used to hire additional probation officers with specialized skills, such as substance abuse counseling, for the four expanding courts.

The preliminary recommendation by the Appropriations Committee must be approved by the entire State Legislature and then signed by Gov. Pete Ricketts to award the additional funding. The major budget request by the governor to reduce overcrowding is $49 million for a 384-bed prison expansion in Lincoln.

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