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Job search a fresh start

Job search a fresh start

PRISON OVERHAUL

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The old news: Nebraska's prison system is a mess.

The new news: Nebraska's next governor knows change is needed. And he's got a plan to find the right person to clean things up.

"We need to have leadership that can bring about transformational change," Gov.-elect Pete Ricketts said in a meeting with World-Herald editorial writers.

His plan is to conduct a national search.

His goal: a new, proven director for the problem-plagued Department of Correctional Services, someone who can build a team and bring culture change to an agency where too many mistakes and too little accountability have been the order of the day for too long.

The new prison boss must "understand that they're going to be a change agent," Ricketts said.

By now, all Nebraskans know the sad story.

State prison officials didn't properly calculate the release dates for inmates, sending hundreds out the door too early and eventually adding 2,000-plus years to the sentences of others after The World-Herald uncovered the problems this summer.

Those officials ignored Nebraska Supreme Court rulings telling them how to calculate the release dates. They felt pressure, they say, to turn inmates loose to keep crowding down. Furlough programs were fashioned, then expanded from nonviolent to violent offenders. That, too, provided a little extra space inside the walls.

Fixing all of this will be a big, difficult job.

To do it, Ricketts has climbed out of the box. He will seek private donations to hire an executive search firm to identify candidates for Corrections, as well as a new leader for the Health and Human Services system and a third job he views as key to Nebraska's future growth — head of the Department of Economic Development.

It's an unusual step, to be sure. Commendably, the new governor promises public accountability in this process — he'll identify the donors and make public names of the finalists. It allows the not-yet-governor, who doesn't take office until Jan. 8, to get a jump start on the hunt for help and widen the pool of candidates beyond a typical state government job posting.

Ricketts hopes the national search will bring to Nebraska someone focused on excellence in job performance and accountability for results, two qualities clearly missing in the recent controversies. The new director will have to navigate the challenges of improving training of his workforce.

Looming over all of this is a recent consultant's report on overcrowding, with the prisons now at more than 150 percent of capacity.

That report said the state could start fixing the problem by adding 1,100 beds spread out over three facilities at a cost of $199.2 million. Operating the expanded system would add millions more in costs each year.

Ricketts isn't ready to go there yet. He voices a desire to take this process one step at a time.

That starts with hiring a Corrections director with experience in working on these issues. The governor-elect wants to look at larger roles for drug courts and veterans' courts, and to work with judges on alternative ways to handle nonviolent criminals. He says he's not embarrassed to steal good ideas from other states.

All of that makes sense. Whether it is enough to avoid the costs of building new prison cells remains to be seen.

But the search for a new prison chief is the starting point. Nebraskans can hope the new governor finds the right person.

FURTHERMORE

You may see a flag flying at half-staff today and wonder why. It's Dec. 7, the 73rd anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. In urging Nebraskans to remember the sacrifices made that day and beyond as America entered World War II, Gov. Dave Heineman put it well, noting that this day serves as "an annual reminder of America's commitment to a free and just world."

The on-field performance of young men with an oblong ball ultimately determines success or failure in college football, of course. But the Day One goal set by new Husker coach Mike Riley — "We are in this together to build young men and win championships, and they don't have to be exclusive of one another" — hit the right note about guiding student-athletes.

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