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.
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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.
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
Darryl Brown Jr. writes: "Nuance belongs in the conversation around abortion; our faith does not always require an 'either/or' mentality."
Gov. Pete Ricketts writes: "State law declares 'the will of the people of the State of Nebraska and the members of the Legislature to provide protection for the life of the unborn child whenever possible."
Gwenn Aspen writes: Will a candidate be a leader who will stand with voters, or will they stand with authoritarians?
David G. Brown writes: "The City of Omaha has taken a giant step forward in providing new dynamic infrastructure that will bring more people, companies and jobs to the very heart of our community."
A Russian invasion of Ukraine would be felt throughout the world, directly threatening Poland and the Baltic States and unsettling global economies.
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."
Rebecca Fahrlander writes: "Chain letters, like today's social media chain posts, usually involved some concern or superstition around fate, bad fortune, illness, etc. Breaking the chain could bring bad luck. They were fake before we had fake news."
Andi Curry Grubb writes: "Those who strongly oppose abortion have spread misinformation, creating harmful stigma and shaming people who have had abortions into silence. This has left a vacuum that the vocal minority has used to push its narrow, ideological agenda against abortion to the tipping point."
Polling shows strong support for conservation easements in Nebraska.
State. Sen. Steve Lathrop writes that dealing with incarceration growth "will take a new approach to criminal justice using strategies that can actually reduce recidivism, protect public safety and rein in prison growth."
Nationally, other states are doing a better job of protecting their children than Nebraskans are. This must change.
he mandate enacted by Douglas County Health Director Lindsay Huse is an absolutely necessary measure; however, it is important to emphasize that masks are only one part of the solution.
State Sen. Tom Brewer and John R. Lott Jr. write: "Much will remain unchanged with constitutional carry. Businesses and private property owners still have the right to exclude guns from their premises. Prohibitions remain in sensitive places, and laws about gun misuse are unchanged. Nebraskans must still be able to legally own a gun to carry it."
"Colorado’s plans to siphon off water from the South Platte River would decrease agricultural water supplies and raise pumping costs for our residents," Gov. Pete Ricketts writes.
State Sen. John McCollister writes: "Republican voters have been so pumped full of lies from conservative talk radio, Fox News and conspiracy outlets like OANN, that any law is then seen as some draconian overreach of government power."
The RNC could act as a barrier to the Cult of Trump and set the party on a sane and responsible course. But it hasn’t, and probably won’t.
But it has happened before.
Vaccines continue to remain the No. 1 preventative measure to combat COVID. We need every eligible Nebraskan to get fully vaccinated and boosted to protect each other.
Madison Kinkaid writes: "As the world continues to warm, we look to new energy sources to fuel our needs."
Dr. Jeffrey P. Gold writes: "Based on recent GCHS success in leveraging investments to receive competitive grants and contracts, an independent outside economic impact projection shows that the state’s one-time investment would create 220 high-wage, high-skill, high-demand jobs statewide."
While the role of Omaha may have been brief, its status as a gateway to the west and pivotal role in providing the logistical support made its contribution critical to the success of the hunt.
State Sen. Mike Flood says he hopes to advance further pro-life legislation during the 2022 legislative session.
Pat Loontjer writes: "The economic impact and jobs casinos claim are not in addition to existing local economic activity but in place of it. Gambling dollars do not drop from the sky. They come from local gamblers whose spending patterns change when slot machines move in, at the expense of local business receipts."
The last two years have taught us that we don’t have the luxury of working in silos any longer.
Kenneth Keith writes: "We once again have the opportunity to rise to the occasion, to come together in the face of adversity."
Gov. Pete Ricketts: "On behalf of all Nebraskans, thank you to members of the Nebraska National Guard for your dedicated service to our state."
Today, our state and our nation both face pressing needs for which the University of Nebraska at Omaha is in a strategic position to provide solutions.