Former Director of Correctional Service Bob Houston, testifying before an investigative committee of the Legislature Friday, avoided blaming Gov. Dave Heineman for either prison overcrowding or the release of Nikko Jenkins, found guilty of later killing four people.
Houston was the director of Nebraska’s Department of Correctional Services from 2005 to last year. A special legislative committee is now investigating that department, looking at questions including why Nebraska’s prison population has reached nearly 160 percent of capacity.
Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop, who chairs the committee, said that that a 2006 master plan said the state would need 1,300 new prison beds, costing at that time $88 million, by the middle of this decade. But he said the department never asked for that money. Lathrop suggested officials in the administration of Gov. Dave Heineman must have told Houston not to include it in his budget requests. "At some point there had to (have) been a meeting where somebody told you ‘We’re not spending any money, Mr. Houston. Go find a way to reduce overcrowding without building more capacity,’" Lathrop said.
Houston denied it, saying "There was not a meeting that specified it that way."Houston went on to say that such an order was not necessary. "I was not told at any point not to put in for construction. It was one of those things that I didn’t need to be told – not in relationship understood with the governor -- but understood in general," he explained.
And Houston said Nebraska’s prisons have not been starved for funds relative to those in other states. "You look on national level, and you look at what we’re doing in Nebraska. Nebraska looks really good. We’ve got an outstanding department of corrections. And I know that we’ve been taking hits over the past year but it is an outstanding department. And the resources that we have match up with resources in other states," he said. "Do we have all the resources that we could want to get everybody programming? No," he added.
Lathrop took little comfort in comparing Nebraska to other states. "I can’t think that 160 percent of capacity is a model because we have the ACLU breathing down our neck. We’re looking at the possibility of a federal lawsuit if we don’t do something different. And we have two committees studying the problems over there. And if that’s true in every state, this country’s got problems," he said.
The committee is also looking into the circumstances surrounding last year’s release of Nikko Jenkins, who was found guilty of subsequently killing four people in Omaha. Lathrop asked Houston whether he’d been warned about Jenkins mental health.
"Before he was released, Bob, did anybody tell you what he was writing?" Lathrop asked? "Did anybody tell you he was promising to kill people?"
Houston’s answer to both questions was "No."
But Houston acknowledged writing an email months before Jenkins release assigning department officials to come up with a plan for him. He said he had not written similar instructions for other inmates. "My job as you’ll see in the Feb. 26 memo was to set in motion an effort to discharge Nikko Jenkins into the community. We discharge and parole 2,000 people a year. And so he did come on to my radar screen," Houston said.
The committee is to meet again in about two weeks to focus on why the department let hundreds of inmates out earlier than they should have according to sentencing instructions from the Nebraska Supreme Court. Gov. Dave Heineman and Attorney General John Bruning have also asked the State Patrol to do a criminal investigation of that matter.