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Midlands Voices: Let’s invest in people, not prisons

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Our state’s carceral system is a disaster.

Nebraska has the most overcrowded prison system in the country. Some places are crammed with more than two times the number of people they were designed to hold. Severe understaffing has cost taxpayers $48 million in overtime during the past three years. Despite locking away so many people, Nebraskans are no safer. Crime rates are unchanged and recidivism has increased.

If you’re like me, you find the human and financial costs of this system insupportable.

Last month, the Nebraska Criminal Justice Reinvestment Working Group released a report detailing 21 policy options to shift resources toward cost-effective public safety strategies. The group was convened last April by state leaders in collaboration with the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a public-private partnership between the Bureau of Justice Assistance and Pew Charitable Trusts.

Among the 21 options were familiar approaches like expanding problem-solving courts and streamlining parole. Missing, however, were three of the most important solutions to reduce recidivism: peer support infrastructure, trauma-informed medical services and fair chance hiring initiatives.

Peer support helps individuals recover during and after incarceration. Connecting folks with others who have had similar life experiences — for example, in overcoming substance use or successfully re-integrating into the community — can help people surmount these hurdles. The upshot is reduced recidivism.

I’ve seen how effective peer coaches have been with patients in our emergency psychiatric unit at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. A formerly incarcerated individual shared with me how peer mentorship dissolved the barrier between himself and what he called the “buttoned-up-ness” of providers.

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Peer mentors can help incarcerated persons complete programming required to achieve parole, reducing overcrowding. They link re-entering individuals to resources in a way that helps them feel empowered, not degraded. From another perspective, peer support provides meaningful employment for those formerly incarcerated. Leveraging peer support for community healing yields a return on investment that far outshines what we get by pouring taxpayer money into prison walls.

Trauma-informed medical services help formerly incarcerated people optimize their physical, mental, and emotional health. Trauma-informed care shifts the focus from “What’s wrong with you?” to “What happened to you?” Many in the carceral system have experienced violence, rape and other abuses. A trauma-cognizant approach emphasizes a complete picture of a patient’s life situation — past and present — to help them build stability after incarceration.

Since a person’s status following release does not update right away, individuals returning to their communities face delayed eligibility for Medicaid and access to care. Providing trauma-informed health services during the first 30 days after release can reduce recidivism, which is highest during this transitional period. Medicaid coverage should be automatic during this time.

Secure employment helps individuals successfully re-integrate into the community after incarceration — which is why Nebraska should pursue stronger fair chance hiring legislation. While we became the first red state to “ban the box” in 2014, that rule only applies to public employers. We must expand it to the private sector. In addition, the state should bar all employers from knowing a candidate’s conviction history before making a conditional job offer.

After someone has served their time, why do we prolong their punishment by excluding them from the workforce? Although Nebraska statute NRS 29-2264 allows successful probationers to petition to have their conviction voided, it is underused. People don’t know it exists. Lacking access to a steady income, formerly incarcerated persons may resort to ways of earning money that land them back in the jaws of the prison-industrial complex. Initiating the petition process should be part of everyone’s return-to-community plan by default, unless they opt out.

To be sure, none of these downstream measures addresses the root cause of mass incarceration, which functions as a system of oppression for racially and ethnically marginalized communities. If we keep building more prisons, as Gov. Pete Ricketts has urged, we’ll just be exacerbating that problem. The three proposals outlined here would drastically cut recidivism in Nebraska, which is trending in a worrisome direction.

Human beings are not inherently broken, but we are all fallible. We make mistakes. Yet there is nothing “correctional” or “rehabilitative” about the current dehumanizing experience of incarceration. Let’s reduce recidivism and prison overcrowding by investing more in people — not prisons — with peer support programs, trauma-informed medical services, and fair chance hiring practices.

Midlands Voices January 2022

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Ron Jensen writes: "I have no doubt that the political parties would like to have more to say about who serves in our Legislature, as well as what they do when they get there. But Nebraskans have only to look at the U.S. Congress to understand how well that would serve the public interest."

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Madison Kinkaid writes: "As the world continues to warm, we look to new energy sources to fuel our needs."

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Kenneth Keith writes: "We once again have the opportunity to rise to the occasion, to come together in the face of adversity."

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Gov. Pete Ricketts: "On behalf of all Nebraskans, thank you to members of the Nebraska National Guard for your dedicated service to our state."

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Natasha Hongsermeier-Graves is an MD/MPH candidate in public health from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. This article reflects the views of the author rather than that of the author’s affiliated institutions.

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