Several state senators, in the wake of questions about why Nikko Jenkins was released from prison despite his pleas for treatment, say prisoners with violent compulsions should get the same sort of rigorous review given to prisoners with sexual compulsions.
Under existing law, about a dozen sexual offenders every year are committed after release from prison.
Violent offenders such as Jenkins are so rarely sent to state mental institutions that no agency could provide a number.
That, legislators say, needs to change.
“When you find somebody with significant mental health issues ... there needs to be a process in place where those people can be examined and processed before they're released,” said State Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, who heads the Judiciary Committee. “You can't just say 'Well, there's nothing wrong with him.' ”
Since 2006, Nebraska has had a detailed plan for dealing with sex offenders who are about to be released from prison.
Each has to undergo a psychiatric evaluation by prison doctors. That evaluation then goes to county attorneys, along with a department recommendation about whether the person should go before a county board of mental health for commitment.
The law doesn't require that sex offenders have a mental illness to be committed. Coupled with an inability to control behavior, a “personality disorder” — a far lower bar — is enough.
County attorneys decide whether to pursue the matter before the board of mental health.
The process was adopted as part of legislative reforms proposed in 2006 by Gov. Dave Heineman, Attorney General Jon Bruning and then-State Sen. Pat Bourne of Omaha.
The reforms were prompted by concerns that more sex offenders were moving to Nebraska after Iowa restricted where they could live. Support was fueled by cases involving gaps in the system exposed by the sexual assault of a Lincoln kindergartner and the assault of a 17-year-old in Weston, Neb., by a diagnosed pedophile.
It's a prescriptive system that has quietly changed the role of some regional treatment centers, said Scot Adams, director of behavioral health for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.
The Norfolk Regional Center used to treat all kinds of mental patients but has evolved to where it now treats only sex offenders. Most are treated for three or four years before being released.
The evaluation system has increased the ranks of sex offenders in the regional centers, from 106 before the law passed to 158 at the end of 2012. Most were being treated after serving prison sentences.
No similar law mandates evaluations for nonsexual violent offenders such as Jenkins.
Corrections officials occasionally recommend committing dangerous criminals using the same process that applies to all citizens, but that is rare.
Data wasn't available last week from state corrections or HHS on how many dangerous non-sex offenders are recommended for commitment after prison.
But one thing's for sure: It's not a big number.
“It happens so rarely, there's not going to be a file,” said Marshall Lux, state ombudsman.
Douglas County prosecutors recalled two female non-sex offenders who were committed after leaving the women's prison at York. Both were committed under the rules that apply to all citizens, which require that they be both mentally ill and dangerous to themselves or others.
Sarpy County prosecutors said they commit about one sex offender every year, while only one non-sex offender has been committed after release in the past few years.
Several lawmakers called this a hole in the system and said it would be a focus in the coming legislative sessions.
“If there's any good that comes out of these murders, it's that the Legislature is going to address this,” said Sen. Les Seiler of Hastings. Jenkins “was begging for it and didn't get the necessary help. We need to take a look at that. How did we miss on this guy?”
Any solution probably won't be as simple as replicating the sex offender process for violent criminals.
The state's regional treatment centers have adapted over the past decade to care for sex offenders who aren't mentally ill. But throwing violent criminals into the mix would require more resources at the facilities, HHS officials said.
Adams said the sex-offender approach wouldn't be a perfect fit because while sex offenses are well-defined, violent offenses can be murkier.
“It's not an exact parallel. It's apples and potatoes,” he said. “Perhaps there is some parallel notion that is not quite the same. This is a topic that deserves a lot of careful thought and consideration rather than a rush to a solution.”
Ideas about how to fix the system are all speculation, because legislators haven't had any formal discussions about the matter.
That's in part because corrections officials haven't briefed legislators, said Sen. Burke Harr of Omaha.
They don't know how Jenkins was treated, if at all, or what counseling he received before his release, several lawmakers said.
Records show that at least one prison evaluator thought Jenkins was faking a mental illness. Harr said he didn't know how such an evaluation had been reached.
“Is someone just knocking on their cell door, making sure they're not insane?” he said. “I don't have the facts.”
Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln said the Judiciary Committee should explore a model for violent offenders similar to the one used for sex offenders.
“We should look at whether that process is appropriate for the Nikkos of the world,” he said. “We have a framework for keeping dangerous sex offenders out of the community. We ought to see if there's a similar framework for dangerous violent people.”
The Legislature also could consider requiring parole for violent offenders with mental problems, which would ensure that they seek treatment, he said.
Any solution will have to balance protecting a prisoner and the public with respecting prisoners' rights, he said.
“We can't keep a guy past his sentence,” Coash said. “We can't keep people in jail just to give them treatment.”
Dr. Sidney Kauzlarich, a psychiatrist at the Douglas County Health Center, said the American Psychiatric Association undoubtedly would oppose any plan to extend the civil commitment process to offenders who don't suffer from full-blown mental illness.
The fear is that the hospital would just become an alternative prison.
Commitment doesn't make sense if a person can't be treated, he said.
“We don't have a whole lot of data that we can make a substantial difference with those patients,” he said.