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Nebraska will seek new study on criminal justice reforms, won't delay decision on new prison

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LINCOLN — Nebraska will seek federal money to conduct a new, “data-driven” study of possible criminal justice reforms, though the study won’t delay consideration of an expensive new state prison, Gov. Pete Ricketts said Friday.

Ricketts said consideration of his administration’s proposal to build a 1,600-bed, $230 million prison — one of the most expensive state construction projects in history — cannot be delayed. It would replace the State Penitentiary in Lincoln, which is nearing the end of its useful life, and would help the state avoid an estimated $195 million in upgrades, the governor said.

“The Nebraska State Penitentiary needs to be replaced. That’s a fact,” Ricketts said. “That legislation needs to move forward.”

At a press conference Friday that included the chief justice of the Nebraska Supreme Court and state legislative leaders, the governor said a grant request will soon be sent to the federal Department of Justice to finance a study by the nonprofit Crime and Justice Institute. That group helps criminal justice systems discover strengths and weaknesses in areas of probation, parole, criminal sentencing and incarceration.

Ricketts, a Republican who has made “continual improvement” a top goal, said that study would provide more solid data for state courts, parole and corrections officials on what needs to be done to improve outcomes for those systems. Right now, about 30% of all Nebraska prison inmates commit repeat crimes within three years of leaving prison, a recidivism rate that could be reduced via suggestions from the new study, he said.

For instance, the governor said, drug courts and other judge-supervised treatment courts have reformed many lives, but should the state do more, or should it do other things, like expanding its supervised release of inmates?

State Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, a Democrat who has focused on corrections and criminal justice issues, said he had reached out to the Crime and Justice Institute after watching proposed criminal justice reforms fail to advance in the Legislature. He said such a study, which would be done by the end of the year, would provide data to show what reforms would help the state maintain public safety while avoiding the high cost of prison incarceration.

“This is a beginning of an opportunity for Nebraska to join other states that have gotten smart on crime,” Lathrop said. “Tough on crime” efforts that have included longer prison sentences and mandatory sentences, he said, have failed, and contributing to more state spending and too many lives behind bars.

Six years ago, Nebraska passed a series of criminal justice reforms suggested by the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments. But the resulting law, Legislative Bill 605, didn’t achieve the predicted reductions in state prison populations, and Nebraska now has the second-most overcrowded prison system in the nation.

Ricketts said that a new study won’t be “deja vu all over again,” but will provide better data to guide state policies and programs. The CSG study, he said, came with too many preconceived notions about what reforms were needed in Nebraska.

Our best Omaha staff photos of February 2021


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Reporter - Regional/state issues

Paul covers state government and affiliated issues. He specializes in tax and transportation issues, following the governor and the state prison system. Follow him on Twitter @PaulHammelOWH. Phone: 402-473-9584.

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