Nebraska’s prisons are in the spotlight. They are overcrowded, and some say they’re not working to keep the public safe or help the people inside. Efforts are now underway in the Legislature to address those concerns.
Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha chairs the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, which handles legislation on crime and punishment. And as Nebraska’s prisons pass 150 percent of capacity, that committee is the next stop for Ashford’s effort to head off the need to build another prison, by doing a better job dealing with inmates.
“The better job we do at dealing with offenders as far as making them better able to be productive, the prison population will stabilize and moderate over time. That’s the case in almost every state in the country that has done what is now sort of called ‘justice reinvestment,’” Ashford said.
“Justice reinvestment” is a strategy promoted by the Council of State Governments, a nonpartisan group that says its mission is to promote excellence in state government. CSG’s Robert Coombs said the idea is not to solve prison overcrowding simply by letting people go. “Justice reinvestment is not going to result in the release of thousands or tens of thousands of people from prisons out onto the streets,” Coombs said. “Rather, what it’s meant to do is to determine where your public safety system can give you the best bang for your buck.”
Coombs says the time when prisoners are released is a crucial one for trying to prevent their returning to prison. “Many states have found that there are good opportunities to reevaluate what you do with people who are coming out of jails and prisons… to make sure that they get drug treatment, education, other types of programs so they’re going to make sure they reduce their recidivism,” he said.
Ashford agreed what happens to people when they get out is key to keeping them out. “We’re not simply going to send an offender out on the street looking for work. We’re going to have hopefully a laundry list of potential employers within the state who would be willing to hire ex-offenders, that sort of thing,” he said. “If someone is working, if someone is reuniting with their families, if someone has adequate housing, they’re much less likely to go out and commit another crime.”
To accomplish that, Ashford has introduced a bill to prevent inmates from “jamming out” – that is, being released from prison without supervision. “No inmate should be released without having a supervised release plan. Right now about 46 percent jam out. They have a greater chance of reoffending than those who are in the parole system,” he said.
Ashford is also introducing a bill to increase programs available to inmates. In a recent report, State Ombudsman Marshall Lux said only about 13 percent of Nebraska prisoners have access to programs, which focus on substance abuse, anger management, violence reduction and sex offenses. “I think that there’s a great need for more programming and more mental health resources in our state’s correctional system,” Lux said.
Lux issued a report on prison mental health, using as an example the treatment of Nikko Jenkins, accused of killing four people in Omaha after being released from prison last summer. Asked about the report, and the need it said there was for more prison programs, Gov. Dave Heineman said, “Marshall Lux can try and blame someone else for these murders. But Nikko Jenkins is the person who killed four Nebraskans. Marshall Lux may want to be soft on crime and care more about the criminals than the victims and their families, but I don’t.”
Heineman wants to toughen Nebraska’s “good time” law to make inmates earn reductions in their sentences. But Nicole Porter of the Sentencing Project, which advocates for alternatives to incarceration, cautions against making policy based on crimes like those of which Jenkins is accused. “The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world," Porter said, and yet such incidents continue to happen. “If lawmakers and laypeople are interested in improving public safety, we hope they understand there are other ways to do that not just based on emotion.”
Porter co-authored a paper last year criticizing justice reinvestment efforts in other states for not going far enough. The report said those efforts have helped stabilize prison populations and budgets, but risk institutionalizing mass incarceration at current levels.
CSG’s Coombs of the Council of State governments said the criticism is not surprising. “One of the things that’s really special about justice reinvestment is that it‘s capturing energy in many of these states that bridges partisan divides,” he declared. “In every state that we work in there are oftentimes people on the right that say justice reinvestment doesn’t go far enough and isn’t tough on crime enough, and you have people on the left saying that it’s too tough on crime and it’s not taking into account some of these liberal ideas of what you can do with public safety. And I think that’s a really good indicator that this is hitting the right wavelength.”
Whether or not Nebraskans agree it is the right approach will be determined as the Legislature considers proposals this year.
Correction: The audio version of this story and an earlier web version misidentified a person from The Sentencing Project at two points. The correct name is Nicole Porter, not Rogers.