• Read State Sen. Heath Mello's statement in response to the appointment of Michael L. Kenney as director of the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services.
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LINCOLN — Gov. Dave Heineman said Thursday he remains convinced the state can avoid building an expensive new prison to alleviate chronic overcrowding, and is “shocked” by two state senators’ reaction to his call for a “renewed focus” on the death penalty.
The governor, in an interview, responded to criticism that his administration hadn’t yet devised a plan to address overcrowded facilities and a string of violent incidents involving released inmates.
He rejected an assertion that he was trying to change the subject by interjecting capital punishment into the debate.
Heineman also said he was reviewing why corrections officials take away good time in less than 5 percent of cases of inmate misconduct, as reported Tuesday by The World-Herald.
Heineman, in an open letter to Sen. Health Mello on Wednesday, said “the endless debate to end capital punishment” had left “murderers in the community” unconcerned about getting the death penalty.
He cited the case of Nikko Jenkins, who is charged with slaying four Omahans shortly after his release from prison in July, as one where the death penalty is clearly warranted.
“I’m shocked by their attitude,” Heineman said of the lawmakers. “Go talk to the citizens of Omaha right now. Four innocent Nebraskans were murdered by this guy. Four innocent Nebraskans.
“The just and appropriate penalty is the death penalty,” he said.
The two state senators, Mello and Brad Ashford, both of Omaha and both opponents of capital punishment, have pressed the governor to come up with a strategy to deal with overcrowding and the violent incidents. Over the past year, six deaths have been related to prison inmates who were on work release, a weekend furlough or, in Jenkins’ case, had recently completed their sentence.
Mello, who heads the Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriations Committee, said lawmakers need to know the governor’s plan, particularly if he wants to spend $130 million to $150 million on a new prison.
But the senator, a Democrat, said the Republican governor’s response on Wednesday was to criticize opponents of the death penalty for being “soft on crime” instead of addressing the prison problems.
“The governor is dodging the crisis in front of us by issuing personal political attacks,” Mello said.
Ashford, who heads the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, said that the death penalty is a separate issue from the crisis facing corrections, and that courts, not politicians, will decide when capital punishment is warranted.
“There are fixes to this,” Ashford said of the prison issues. “But we have to buckle down and focus on them instead of arguing who’s tougher on crime.”
On Wednesday, Heineman took two steps to address the issues facing corrections.
He appointed Michael L. Kenney, current warden of the Omaha Correctional Center, as new director of the Department of Corrections. With Kenney’s departure, Deputy Warden Rich Cruickshank will serve as acting warden at the Omaha facility.
Kenney, 60, replaces Bob Houston, who retired abruptly last week as head of the state’s second-largest agency.
The governor also called on the Nebraska Legislature to pass legislation requiring violent inmates to earn “good time” reductions in their prison sentences.
Under current law, inmates are awarded one day of good time for every day spent in prison, effectively cutting their sentences in half. Prison officials can take away good time for violations of prison rules, but that rarely happens, according to a World-Herald analysis of state data.
The state’s prisons hold about 1,600 more inmates than they were designed to hold. The occupancy rate stood at 150.6 percent last week. When prisons hit 140 percent of capacity, the governor can declare an overcrowding emergency. That’s also a benchmark used by federal courts to order a state to release inmates to relieve overcrowding.
Heineman, in his first interview since Houston retired, said he remains convinced that the state can find alternatives to building a new prison.
“The last thing I want to do, and the citizens want to do, is spend a very large sum of money on a new prison if we don’t have to,” the governor said.
He said his administration is looking at why so few inmates lose good time, and will have a comment “in the very near future.”
One concern expressed in the Jenkins case was that he didn’t lose more good time for three assaults he committed while in prison.
Mello said he’s willing to look at changes in the state’s good time law but wondered why the governor hadn’t made administrative changes to good time penalties already. State law dictates how much good time is awarded, but the corrections department determines how much is taken away, and whether any lost good time is restored.
The governor said he is focusing on the state law that covers how good time is awarded.
The state’s newest corrections director, in a press release, said he was committed to “meeting the challenges currently faced by the department.”
“I’m confident in our ability to meet these challenges with public safety being the top priority,” he said.
Kenney has managed several prisons in Nebraska during a 36-year career and served two years as a regional corrections director in the state of Washington. In his new role, he will oversee 10 state prison facilities and about 2,100 employees, about 200 fewer than he supervised in Washington.
Kenney, who will be paid $115,000-a-year, declined a request for an interview Wednesday.
Heineman called him a “respected corrections professional” and solid leader.
Mello, a Catholic who opposes capital punishment on religious grounds, was among a majority of senators last spring who supported repeal of the death penalty. But the bill was stalled by a filibuster.
Ashford said the Jenkins case and chronic overcrowding necessitate larger prison reforms than just changes to good time rules.
The state senator said Nebraska needs to provide more funding and focus on probation, parole and mental health treatment for inmates.
“This is an extremely complex issue, and it’s not going to be solved by talking about the death penalty,” Ashford said.