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Editorial: Nebraska has much work to do before it contemplates a new prison

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Between 2010 and 2020, Nebraska saw a 16% rise in its prison population. This was due in part to a gun violence bill passed by the Nebraska Legislature in 2009.

Nebraska is spending prodigiously on its prisons: Over the past decade, costs increased 51%, from $179.8 million in 2011 to $272.3 million last year. We’re getting a horrible return on this investment.

While our prison population has grown more than any other state’s in the past decade, violent crime in Nebraska is up 17%; recidivism is up; and our prisons are badly overcrowded, dangerously understaffed hellholes.

As Nebraska legislators tackle this crisis, they must focus on fiscal responsibility and public safety. These are not mutually exclusive goals, and neither will be achieved by building a new quarter-billion-dollar prison advocated by Gov. Pete Ricketts and others.

Like adding lanes to freeways in an effort to address traffic jams, additional prison beds will quickly fill up, and the same troubles will emerge if we fail to address their root causes. Legislators and the administration have significant work to do before we can figure out what construction and renovation will actually help solve our problems.

Corrections workers and inmates describe staffers working around the clock, maximum-security units left unguarded, and a 19-year-old woman the sole officer assigned to a gallery of 60 prisoners. At the Tecumseh prison — opened in 2001 in a failed effort to alleviate crowding — inmates are locked down from Thursday night until Monday morning because of staff shortages.

This is dangerous to inmates, to officers and to the general public, which 95% of inmates will eventually rejoin, their mental health and substance abuse problems largely unaddressed and their life skills barely enhanced — if not eroded by the conditions of their confinement.

It’s ridiculously expensive. The Flatwater Free Press, which is collaborating with The World-Herald on “Paying the Price,” an examination of the state’s prison crisis, reported Friday that overtime has cost Nebraska taxpayers $48 million in the past three years.

That’s going to grow dramatically in the coming months because to combat the staff shortage, starting pay has gone up $8 an hour — and overtime is now double pay rather than the traditional time and a half. “I think we’re going to get blown away” by overtime costs, said Doug Koebernick, the state’s inspector general for prisons.

At the end of 2021, the Corrections Department had 650 staff vacancies. While the big pay increases have attracted applicants, Koebernick said Nebraska would be wise to wait a few months to see if applicants’ interest is sustained and the staff shortage is being meaningfully alleviated. Even with the increased applications, many have concerns about the state’s ability to adequately staff a new prison.

Koebernick believes that if construction is needed, it would be wise to expand or model a larger facility after the Work Ethic Camp in McCook, a 200-bed center focused on treatment and education.

Such programming ultimately plays an important role in public safety, but the staff crunch makes it less available throughout the prison system. Paroles are down, the most common reason being that an inmate has not completed required programming.

It serves fiscal responsibility and public safety to give inmates every tool possible to be productive members of society through education, addiction and mental health counseling, and incentives to comply with their terms of release.

The Legislature has in its hands a report from the Criminal Justice Reinvestment Working Group that includes 21 policy recommendations. “The options ... provide an avenue for Nebraska to avoid additional spending over the next decade, and establish the ability to invest a portion of what would have been spent on new prison beds on measures to strengthen public safety and address behavioral health issues across the state.”

The working group, which included Ricketts, Judiciary Committee Chairman Steve Lathrop, the Nebraska chief justice, the corrections director and others, reached consensus on 17 options that would streamline parole, reduce the number of inmates released without parole, improve access to problem-solving courts and behavioral health services, invest in housing and more.

The report includes four options that did not have consensus support, including establishing misdemeanor penalties for simple possession of small amounts of drugs other than marijuana — a nonviolent crime that indicates substance abuse better treated as a health disorder than as felonious conduct.

The World-Herald found that much of the prison population increase in the past decade has been driven by a 2009 gun law that, among other things, led to some crimes being prosecuted in state court at Nebraska taxpayer expense that previously would have landed in federal court. But those simple non-marijuana drug possession cases accounted for 13% of prison admissions last year. Lack of diversion programs and problem-solving courts in some parts of the state result in “the use of prison for individuals with drug and/or mental health challenges.”

The Legislature can make progress in reforming our criminal justice system by drawing on the various policy options.

None of these fiscally responsible ideas are soft-on-crime, bleeding-heart thinking. Recommendations from the Justice Reinvestment Initiative are being used in Mississippi, Texas, Utah and other states that, unlike Nebraska, are reducing their prison population.

None of this is a magic bullet, either — criminal justice changes take years to play out. But these recommendations promise the opportunity to unplug Nebraska’s escalating crisis at less cost than simply expanding capacity and with greater lasting benefit to public safety.

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