Legislature struggles to get workable plan from Corrections to ease crowding in prisons

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Omaha Correctional Center

Omaha Correctional Center

The chairman of the Judiciary Committee and others in the Legislature are trying everything they can think of to assist the Nebraska Department of Corrections in reducing crowding and increasing staffing in the prisons. 

To that end, Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop has proposed building more prison space, this time in Omaha for 300 community corrections beds, for inmates who can work outside the prison or in the system to get ready for transition back into their communities. 

As of November, the prison population had grown to 5,642 inmates, and this month is down to 5,610, but up from 5,458 a year ago. Lathrop is proposing spending at least $52 million, probably more, to get more space for them. 

“We are growing at an alarming rate in our population, which I think is a bigger crisis than the overcrowding emergency the governor has to declare July 1 of 2020,” Lathrop said.  

He said a population projection draft report by JFA Institute, which evaluates data and issues reports to corrections departments around the country, shows that without some intervention by the Legislature the state will be in a perpetual state of emergency.

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There’s only two solutions, he said. Do sentencing reform and let prisoners out sooner or serve shorter sentences, or build more capacity. In 2014, a population study done by the Dewberry group proposed the building project. 

The governor’s website indicates he is not on board with sentencing reform, Lathrop said. 

“I do know we can’t continue to do nothing,” he said. 

Right now in Lincoln there are 620 community beds for men and women and 160 male beds in Omaha, said Inspector General for Corrections Doug Koebernick. 

There is a need to expand the Diagnostic and Evaluation Center by 192 beds, he said, and the pending Reception and Treatment Center in Lincoln could add at least 96 additional mission-specific beds for older inmates or those with special needs in a second phase. 

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Appropriations Committee Chairman John Stinner said he’s been tracking the population problems five years and is frustrated. 

Over that five years the Legislature has done sentencing reform, paid for specialty courts, spent $75 million for more women’s and men’s beds. With all that, best-case scenario is the state eventually will be at 140% design capacity. 

“What are we doing wrong?,” he said to Koebernick and to Corrections Department Director Scott Frakes. “This thing keeps escalating instead of (going down). … I’d like to make some headway.” 

Frakes opposed Lathrop’s bill, saying that in 2016 the department opened a new 100-bed community custody unit in Lincoln, and in 2019 it opened a 160-bed, state-of-the-art women’s unit. This year it will add another 100 dormitory beds at the Nebraska State Penitentiary for men in minimum custody. In 2022, the Lincoln Correctional Center-Diagnostic and Evaluation Center campus will have another 384 beds for men with high security risk. 

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“All told, the Legislature has approved funding for more than 800 beds since 2015,” he said. “As it stands, NDCS is situated to be in a good place with its complement of minimum and community custody beds.” 

Frakes said his concern is that the bill would create an expectation that the department has to assign people to community custody who are not ready for it. 

In seven months, he said, he will submit a funding request for the next two-year budget. Between now and then he will gather information and explore options to address bed space needs. 

Stinner told Frakes he did not want to lead the nation or even be second in overcrowded prisons, as the state is now. If he had his way, the prisons would be at 100% design capacity, not the 140% or 125%, to which some people seem to be aspiring. 

He asked again, how does the state solve this problem? 

“You’ve been here five years. We’ve begged you to come up with a plan. We’ve given you as many dollars as we possibly can,” he said. 

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Doing the math, in 10 years the size of the prisons would have to double. 

“These are major league expenses that we have to plan for,” Stinner said. “This committee is part of that process. We need cooperation.” 

Yes, the state needs to build beds, Frakes said. Just not community custody beds. “And I don’t need an appropriation right now to figure out what the next steps are.”

He will put forth a request in seven months, he said. 

Lathrop told the committee as he closed his testimony on the bill that the Legislature should have had a plan long ago. 

But the problem is the department, Parole Board and Probation Administration are not willing to risk that someone will go over the fence or walk away from community corrections and not come back, because it will end up in the media and someone will be embarrassed, he said. 

“Over in the Judiciary Committee we’ll do what we can to work with the people who are for, against and neutral to try to come up with some kind of reform that we can agree to. Where people that don’t need to be there aren’t put there,” Lathrop said. “People that need to be there are there no longer than they need to be. And people have the opportunity to be released sooner if they’re suitable candidates.” 

Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSLegislature

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