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Some senators doubt Nebraska will meet prison crowding goal

January 18, 2018

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Some Nebraska lawmakers voiced concerns Wednesday that the state will fail to meet a mandatory deadline to reduce its prison population by July 2020, forcing officials to consider paroling all eligible inmates.

Senators expressed their doubts at a hearing on bills that would force the Department of Correctional Services to act faster or develop a contingency plan.

“We need to get out of the box and think more aggressively about solving the problems we have in front of us regarding corrections,” said Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha.

Nebraska’s corrections department has until July 1, 2020, to lower its inmate population to 140 percent of what all of its facilities were designed to hold. If the department falls short of that target, the prisons will fall into an automatic “overcrowding emergency” that forces state officials to consider paroling all eligible prisoners right away.

Lawmakers imposed the requirement in 2015 as part of a package that was intended to reduce the prison population, but the legislation hasn’t yet produced the desired result. The prisons housed roughly 5,200 inmates earlier this month in facilities that were designed to hold 3,375, placing the population at roughly 154 percent of its designed capacity.

In 2014, when state officials were developing the plan to relieve crowding, Nebraska’s prisons housed 5,130 inmates in facilities that were designed to hold 3,275 — roughly 157 percent of the design capacity.

“At the current rate we’re going, it doesn’t seem we’re going to be under 140 percent” when the deadline hits, said Crete Sen. Laura Ebke, chairwoman of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee.

Krist, who is running for governor, presented the committee with a bill that would move the July 2020 deadline up to July 1 of this year. He acknowledged that the new proposed deadline is “almost insane,” but said it was intended to force a conversation on how to release more prisoners without compromising public safety.

“The point I’m making here is, ‘When does the action start?’” he said.

Members of the Judiciary Committee considered three other measures Wednesday that seek to ease prison crowding. One would allow the release of inmates who are terminally ill or incapacitated, one would allow inmates out of prison temporarily to access drug treatment and rehabilitation programs, and one would require the corrections department to develop a plan in case it fails to meet the July 2020 deadline.

Lawmakers could also consider setting yearly goals to decrease the prison population gradually while keeping the department accountable, said Spike Eickholt, a lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska.

Nebraska Corrections Director Scott Frakes said his agency is working to set up more prisoners for parole, but faces several challenges.

About 60 percent of inmates who are parole eligible are serving time for a violent crime, Frakes said. Roughly half have previously served time behind bars, raising questions about whether they’ll reoffend, and one-third have previously had their parole revoked or rescinded.

“This makes it even more important to stay committed to the original date of 2020,” he said.

Frakes has previously said he was optimistic the department would reduce its inmate population in time, and on Wednesday he said he hasn’t given up hope.

Board of Parole Chairwoman Rosalyn Cotton said many parole-eligible inmates remain behind bars for good reason. Some are still public safety threats, some are denied because victims don’t want them released, and some don’t want to be paroled because they face deportation, she said.

“All (the bill) would do is replace an overcrowding emergency with a public safety emergency,” she said.

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Follow Grant Schulte on Twitter at https://twitter.com/GrantSchulte

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