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Heineman vows action after prisoners wrongly freed

June 18, 2014

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Gov. Dave Heineman vowed Wednesday to hold accountable state officials who miscalculated prison sentences that led to the early release of some violent prisoners.

Heineman said the Department of Correctional Services miscalculated the sentences. He said that he would follow the advice of the Nebraska Attorney General's office on how the state should proceed, and whether inmates who were freed should be returned.

"I'm very unhappy about what occurred," Heineman said at a news conference. "I intend to hold those who were responsible accountable."

His comments came after an Omaha-World Herald investigation published Sunday revealed that prison officials didn't correctly calculate sentences, and released, or were set to release, some inmates before their prison terms should have ended. The newspaper found that sentences were miscalculated for at least 101 inmates, providing breaks that ranged from six months to 15 years.

At least 50 of those prisoners have already been released, and at least two of them — a drug dealer and a robber — are back in custody for new crimes. Another inmate, Marvin Buggs, was wrongly scheduled for release in June 2016 for a manslaughter conviction in the strangling death of a woman. His actual release date should have been June 2021.

Department of Correctional Services Director Michael Kenney was ordered not to release any more prisoners until every sentence is recalculated and checked three times. The Attorney General's office is looking into how to proceed.

The prison debacle came as top officials from all three branches of Nebraska government began to look at ways to reduce prison overcrowding and costs, while maintaining public safety.

The review by Nebraska officials and the Council of State Governments Justice Center will examine alternatives to keeping non-violent inmates behind bars, such as expanded probation and drug courts. The Council of State Governments is a nonpartisan group that conducts research for local, state and federal governments.

Lawmakers this year established a 19-member working group to find solutions, led by Heineman, Speaker of the Legislature Greg Adams and Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Heavican.

"We are looking for innovative and sensible solutions to our prison challenges," Heineman said.

Group members will look at what other states have done recently to reduce their prison populations. Nebraska's prisons housed 5,175 people as of May 31, placing the system at 158 percent of its operating capacity. Heineman and other state officials have said they want to avoid building a new state prison, which would cost about $150 million.

The Department of Correctional Services has also faced criticism for several high-profile killings involving inmates who were released from prison. Among them is Nikko Jenkins, a mentally ill inmate who killed four people in the Omaha area last year after he was released from prison, having served most of his sentence in segregation.

Adams said the study will address some of the prison challenges that lawmakers weren't able to finish in a short, 60-day legislative session. The new law that created Nebraska's working group also revived job and life skills training programs to help prisoners return to society, expanded prison alternatives and increased services for mentally ill inmates and those just released.

The study will look at additional, long-term changes.

"I think what we've got to find here is a balance between public safety and cost effectiveness," Adams said.

Heavican said judges are interested in having viable alternatives at sentencing.

The working group may look to recent changes made in other states, such as Kansas and South Dakota, said Marc Pelka, a program director for the Council of State Governments.

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The bill passed this year is LB907

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