Prison, social service access investigations approved

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March 7, 2014 - 5:35pm

Sen. Steve Lathrop (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

The Legislature Friday authorized investigations concerning the state’s prison system, as well as its social services enrollment system. And lawmakers took a step toward handling cases of suspected child neglect differently.
The prison investigation centers on the handling of Nikko Jenkins. Jenkins was released last year after serving 10 years in prison for robbery, use of a deadly weapon to commit a felony, and assault. Within a month, he is alleged to have committed four murders in Omaha.
Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop sponsored the resolution calling for a special committee to investigate. “This committee is necessary so that the people of the state understand what happened with Nikko Jenkins; to determine whether he is one example -- is he the canary in the coal mine, and more of this will happen if we don’t make reforms and changes?” Lathrop asked.
Lathrop said he isn’t absolving Jenkins. But he cited prison overcrowding and the reported refusal of prison authorities to commit Jenkins for mental health treatment, as he requested, as critical issues to be examined.
Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers focused criticism on solitary confinement, where Jenkins spent much of his time in prison. He read from an article by Rick Raemisch, executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections. Raemisch wrote the piece for the New York Times last month after voluntarily spending 20 hours in solitary confinement, also known as administrative segregation, or “ad seg.”
“If an inmate acts up, we slam a steel door on him. Ad seg allows a prison to run more efficiently for a period of time. But by placing a difficult offender in isolation, you have not solved the problem – only delayed or more likely exacerbated it --  not only for the prison, but ultimately for the public,” Chambers read.
Lincoln Sen. Colby Coash supported the resolution. Coash said has several thousand constituents who work in the prisons, and they’ve been expressing concerns to him. “I’m hearing that safety is becoming more and more difficult to make a reality. Every day the men and women who go there are navigating through more inmates than they were navigating through the week before,” Coash said.
Senators voted 31-0 to establish the investigative committee. It is due to report its findings in December.  
Senators also decided to set up a committee to investigate ACCESSNebraska. That’s the name of the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services’ online and over-the-phone system for signing up for social service benefits.
Sen. Annette Dubas of Fullerton said that nearly six years after starting up, the system is still plagued with problems including long wait times, and employees who feel their work atmosphere is one of fear and frustration.
Dubas recounted how one woman described the experience of trying to get help for her elderly mother as the worst nightmare of her life. Dubas said the woman had trouble navigating the system, trying to find people who knew the answers to her questions, and being passed from one person to another to another. She said she was treated rudely, and documents were lost. The woman’s mother eventually died, and several months later, was finally approved for benefits, Dubas said.
Omaha Sen. John Nelson questioned whether forming a special investigative committee is  the right approach to solving the problems. “Is it the intent, and actually what an investigative committee should be doing, to formulate a new plan… a new way of doing things – or should we leave that up to the department?” Nelson wondered.
Dubas said the committee should work with the department on solutions. And Scottsbluff Sen. John Harms said legislative involvement is needed. “Unless we continue to ask the questions and continue to have a committee looking into this particular issue, it will not get better. It just simply will not get better,” Harms said. “That’s been the history, and that’s been kind of the culture of Health and Human Services,” Harms added. “I’m not being critical or mean-spirited. But I can tell you unless you have a committee like this reviewing it, I just don’t think we’ll see the progress.”
Senators voted 23-0 to form the special investigative committee. Its report is also due in December.
Senators also gave first-round approval to a new approach, dubbed “alternative response” to some cases where child neglect is suspected.  Coash gave the example of a child who shows up to school hungry and says she’s not getting enough to eat. “The way that the system is today, there’ll be an investigation on that and there’ll be a finding. And that parent may be put on the registry to be neglectful,” he said. Under alternative response, “the way we can deal with that family is to say ‘Lets hook this family into resources that’ll help feed their family.’ That’s a poverty-related report that we can avoid the issue of neglect by addressing the underlying issue of poverty,” Coash said.
Coash’s proposal will cost about $1.3 million over the next two years to train workers and set up five pilot programs. Federal funds may pay part of the cost. Senators gave the proposal first-round approval on a vote of 33-0.

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