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Relief sought for prison overcrowding

February 2, 2014

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Prison overcrowding is prompting lawmakers to take a new look at supervised release programs in Nebraska, along with reforms to the system that awards "good time" credit to reduce prison sentences.

Lawmakers will begin that work this week with a proposed overhaul measure of the state's overcrowded prisons, which have risen to 153 percent of their design capacity with nearly 4,900 inmates. Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, who is leading a state prison-reform effort, said Nebraska needs to expand community programs for inmates to help them return to society.

Ashford has introduced a bill, set for a hearing Thursday, that seeks to reduce recidivism and overcrowding in the state prisons. The bill would encourage more supervised release and expand the use of electronic ankle monitoring. Inmates who are segregated for misbehavior would not earn "good time" credit while isolated, but would start earning it again once they're returned to the general population.

"We have to provide community-corrections options for judges throughout the state," Ashford said. "That has to happen this year."

Nebraska Department of Correctional Services Director Michael Kenney said community supervision is a "viable option" to reduce overcrowding, but he also wants to see a state consultant's recommendation for a long-term plan. The report is due for release in May.

"I am a big believer in community supervision as an alternative to incarceration," Kenney said. "I think it's a viable option. But within the agency, we don't really control that very much. The only thing we control within (the department) is releasing an inmate on his discharge date."

Gov. Dave Heineman has called for short-term measures to ease prison overcrowding until state officials agree to a longer-term solution. The immediate plan includes ending state agreements to house 20 federal inmates, adding 52 beds at the state Work Ethic Camp in McCook and shipping as many as 150 inmates to county jails. The governor's plan would also increase security staff in the state prisons, at a total two-year cost of $9.1 million.

Kenney, a former warden and prison counselor, said the crowding magnifies problems within the prison, such as inmate fights and conflicts with prison staff. But he said the prisons still meet national standards for delivering food and medical care to inmates, and noted that Nebraska's 26 percent prison recidivism rate is among the nation's lowest.

"I think it's clear that we should not continue to operate prisons at a level where we couldn't deliver appropriate care," he said. "But right now, we are doing that."

Prison reform surfaced as an issue after several high-profile incidents involving the state Department of Correctional Services, including the Nikko Jenkins case. Jenkins is charged with four Omaha-area slayings after he was released from prison without supervision. He had threatened violence while incarcerated and begged corrections officials to commit him to a mental health institution. A state ombudsman's report released in January faulted the department for its handling of the case.

The Council of State Governments, a national leader in reforming prison systems, has suggested that Nebraska consider increasing its probation options for inmates, along with mental health and re-entry programs. The group reported in November that more than one-third of Nebraska's prison inmates get no supervision after their release.

Some states have reduced their prison populations with an overhaul of their drug-sentencing laws, said Alison Lawrence, a senior policy adviser for the National Conference of State Legislatures. Lawrence said Colorado succeeded with a community-based treatment programs that diverted some drug offenders away from prisons, while giving more parole opportunities to drug offenders to work to change their behavior.

North Carolina has also cut its population by giving probation and parole officers more power to resolve drug violations without sending offenders back to prison, Lawrence said. The new system requires increased drug-testing and treatment before an offender is sent back behind bars, she said.

Lawmakers will also debate changes to Nebraska's "good time" law that awards one day of credit to inmates for every day served. Heineman has called on lawmakers to approve an "earned time" bill for offenders convicted of murder, robbery, sexual assault and other violent crimes. Instead of awarding "good time" credit automatically, the proposal would require violent inmates to behave and participate in rehabilitation programs.

Ashford said the "earned time" proposal wouldn't work, in part because the state prisons lack the programming needed to ensure that all inmates can participate.

Kenney said the bill creates an incentive for violate offenders to behave and better themselves.

"It doesn't punish violent offenders, it simply holds them to a different standard of conduct," Kenney said. "It really puts the onus on violent offenders to manage their own decisions. If he or she does that, there really aren't any negative consequences."

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