Prison overcrowding, veterans' employment discussed in Legislature

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January 14, 2015 - 5:09pm

The question of what to do about Nebraska’s overcrowded prisons took center stage in the Legislature today Wednesday. Lawmakers received recommendations from a group that’s been studying the issue. And they got a look at what it might cost if they try to build their way out of the problem.


At the end of last year, Nebraska’s prisons held more than 5,200 inmates – almost 2,000, or 59 percent -- more than they were designed to hold. Sen. Les Seiler of Hastings, chairman of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, said that is intolerable, and invites a lawsuit.

Sen. Health Mello, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said the state can’t build its way out of the situation. "Even if we build a new $260 million prison facility expansion, that doesn’t stop the issue of growth in our corrections system," he declared.

That $260 million is how much a master plan released by the Department of Correctional Services in October said it would cost to add 1,000 beds to the system over the next five years. Wednesday, Lincoln Sen. Colby Coash introduced a bill, LB237, to do just that.

But Coash said he hopes that’s not necessary. "My intent is not to build all those beds or spend all that money, but to show my colleagues that we have to have that as an option. And if we don’t implement some of the changes that a very hardworking group has put together that might be our only option," he said. "I’m hoping that we won‘t have to, but at the end of the day, when a judge sentences someone, he has to have somewhere to send them. And we’re running out of space to send people."

The group Coash referred to is lawmakers who have been working on a plan to address the problem with the Council of State Governments, or CSG. That’s a nonpartisan, multistate organization that says its mission is to foster the exchange of insights and ideas to help state officials shape public policy.

Mark Pelka of CSG ticked off a list of recommendations, including using probation for people convicted of low-level offenses, ensuring post-release supervision, addressing victim needs, and improving parole supervision to reduce recidivism among people released from prison.

The CSG report says in 2013, 40 percent, or more than 1,000 people sent to prison had committed non-violent offenses. (To see a copy of the full report, click here). It says judges require restitution of victims from only 6 percent of people sentenced to prison, because there’s little chance they’ll actually pay. But the state is much more successful at getting people on probation to pay.

The report also recommends responding to major parole violations with short periods of re-imprisonment that are "swift and certain." If the state takes these and other measures, the report projects, the prison population will drop by 500 inmates by 2020. That would avoid more than $300 million in costs of building and operating new prisons, compared to about $30 million for new probation officers and other programs.

Following the presentation, Jackie McCullough of the Nebraska County Attorneys Association cautioned about the proposal to keep low-level offenders out of prison. "Even though in this report they’d classified as a ‘low-level offender,’ the crimes they may have committed were of varying levels, and this is where they came out in the plea bargaining," she said.

McCullough also said the report’s recommendation to relieve prison overcrowding by having people with short sentences go to county jails instead could simply shift costs onto property tax payers. "There’s no money in this proposal so far that they’re talking about to provide money to the counties to take on this additional burden," she said.

The CSG proposals, Coash’s prison construction bill and others will be examined by legislative committees as senators grapple with what to do about the situation.

Meanwhile, on another subject, a group of senators announced they’ll introduce a package of bills designed to attract and retain military veterans in the state. Among them was Sen. Jeremy Nordquist of Omaha, who pointed to the problem of unemployed veterans. He said in Nebraska the unemployed rate for veterans was 5.8 percent last November, almost double the state’s overall 3.1 percent rate.

To address that, Nordquist said he’ll propose a training and wage subsidy worth up to $12,000 per veteran for up to six months. Other proposals will include tax exemptions for military retirees, better recognition of military experience for professional licenses, and additional health care choices for veterans.

Also on Wednesday, Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers introduced a proposal he has pursued throughout his 40 year legislative career, to abolish the death penalty. His bill, LB268, would replace capital punishment with life in prison without possibility of parole.

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