Bob Houston, who heads the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, knows the need for prison alternatives better than most.
His inmate population of nearly 4,800 sits above a trigger for federal lawsuits and climbs by about 11 people a month. He’s got about 200 inmates he could place in settings that help them better transition back into the state’s work force and into life outside prison, but he lacks the right kind of space.
He’s heard state senators say the Legislature has neither the will nor the money to build a new, $130 million-to-$150 million prison, with ongoing annual costs of $30 million-plus. And he’s engaged in promising talk of prison and sentencing reform.
But he works at the back end of the criminal justice system, with no control over whom he receives or for how long. His department needs the help of the Legislature, the governor and judges to free up space, despite years of state focus on parole.
Fortunately, the people who manage the front end of the justice system appear ready to give this issue the attention it deserves. State Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, chairman of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, told The World-Herald that he plans to draft a major proposal on prison and sentencing reform for the next legislative session.
This effort deserves support, so long as it continues to correctly emphasize public safety at a reasonable cost to taxpayers. Those are the principles that should guide any changes. While saving money is good, Nebraska needs to keep violent criminals off the streets.
The state’s recent uptick in inmates could be eased if each of Nebraska’s 56 district judges sentenced two fewer nonviolent criminals a year to prison. That modest figure should offer hope that the crowding problem is one that can be overcome.
Responsibly addressing prison crowding and costs requires embrace of sensible sentencing flexibility, prison alternatives and getting criminals the help they need so that they only visit prison once.
It requires prioritizing big data on the prison population to inform the debate — digging deeper into who is incarcerated and for what, and drilling down into why people reoffend and what might keep them from doing so.
It requires more statutory emphasis on drug courts and problem-solving courts for nonviolent offenders, better use of local day reporting centers for probationers and parolees and better access to mandatory substance abuse and mental health treatment for those who can safely and more cost-effectively be held accountable closer to home.
State officials know there are answers better than building a new Tecumseh. Tecumseh is home to the last prison Nebraska built in 2001 for $74 million. It has ongoing annual costs of more than $35 million.
Smart prison alternatives are cheaper upfront and over the long term, and they can be nearly as safe. That’s why they are favored by conservatives and liberals alike, one area of broad, bipartisan agreement. Imprisoning someone costs taxpayers nearly $30,000 a year. Putting someone on parole costs about $3,500, and putting an offender on probation costs about $500.
But embracing prison alternatives requires political courage in the face of inevitable disappointments when an inmate falls short or absconds. To succeed, prison alternatives require politicians, policy-makers and administrators to let the public know the facts.
Facts like those that show mandatory-minimum sentences are contributing to this latest prison population bump but aren’t keeping people behind bars any longer, according to Ashford. (Parolees are at record numbers, but new inmates are wiping out any progress in easing crowding, prison officials say.)
Facts show that 14 percent of the state’s prison population is behind bars primarily for drug-related offenses. And another 17 percent are in prison primarily for nonviolent property crimes.
Facts also show that Nebraska’s drug court participants go back to prison about half as often as those who do not participate.
And facts show state corrections spending has nearly tripled since 1996, to roughly $180 million a year, and will continue to grow if nothing changes.
Prison alternatives are about saving money by investing instead in the treatment centers, drug courts, problem-solving courts, probation and parole officers needed to hold nonviolent criminals accountable.
That’s the population where the state could save millions and, in the process, reroute some offenders into productive, taxpaying lives.
It’s about giving people who might succeed a chance to do so with their support networks in tow, about keeping them from becoming hardened criminals who would cost more.
It’s about providing judges reasonable flexibility so they can do more at the front end.
Already, the state has begun important work toward trimming prison populations with a juvenile justice overhaul. Ashford says the next focus is the 1,200 offenders in prison under the age of 26.
But before it can send fewer people to prison, Nebraska must, as it is doing for juvenile justice, invest in building up capacity of social workers, mental health providers, substance abuse treatment providers, reporting centers and probation officers.
All of this is cheaper than a new prison, and prisons are meant for the violent, the vile and the unrepentant — not those who still can change their ways.