Nebraska officials say prison crowding not easily solved

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Five years after Nebraska lawmakers approved a sweeping plan to reduce prison crowding, state officials are only marginally closer to fixing the problem despite millions of dollars in additional funding.

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Nebraska is virtually certain to fall into an “overcrowding emergency" on Wednesday, having missed a state-imposed deadline to reduce its inmate population below 140% of what its facilities were designed to hold.

The emergency designation will force Nebraska officials to consider paroling all inmates who are eligible. It isn't expected to change much, however, because state prison and parole officials said they've already taken steps to speed up the process and they don't plan to deviate much from what they've already been doing.

Nebraska Board of Parole Chairwoman Rosalyn Cotton said the board will hold more parole hearings for eligible inmates, but noted that board members have already taken steps to help prisoners qualify earlier. She said the board isn't going to approve parole for inmates who are considered a public safety threat or who haven't completed rehabilitative programming.

“Every case will be considered on its own merit," Cotton said at a news conference.

About 85% of Nebraska’s inmates aren’t yet eligible for parole, according to the Department of Correctional Services. Of the 804 inmates who do qualify, 285 have been paroled before but have since returned to prison for violations. Additionally, 338 of the 804 parole-eligible inmates already have a hearing scheduled sometime within the next 18 months.

Lawmakers imposed Wednesday’s deadline in a 2015 prison overhaul law, effectively ordering the prisons to drop the inmate population below 140% of what the prisons were designed to hold.

When lawmakers were developing the package in 2014, Nebraska’s prisons housed 5,130 inmates in facilities that were designed to hold 3,275 — roughly 157% of the design capacity.

As of Thursday morning, the percentage had been reduced to 151% of the prison system’s design capacity, with a total of 5,336 inmates in custody. Department of Correctional Services Director Scott Frakes said the prisons have been above 140% of their capacity since 2009, despite adding more prison space to accommodate a net increase in prisoners.

“Nebraska doesn't have a lot of low-level drug offenders who haven't been released," Frakes said.

Frakes said he also will push for a new prison in an area with an adequate workforce to support its operations. Nebraska's prisons have struggled to hire and retain employees at many of its facilities, and those challenges are magnified in rural areas.

The announcement didn't sit well with one prominent prisoner advocacy group.

“For years, the Department of Correctional Services has asked for space and grace," said Danielle Conrad, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska. “Now that the clock has run out, their only idea is to funnel more taxpayer dollars into their department so they can build a new prison."

Conrad said the approach is “disappointing and inadequate," and called on Gov. Pete Ricketts and lawmakers to approve sentencing reform laws and additional rehabilitative programming for inmates.

Lawmakers have previously attempted to change Nebraska’s criminal sentencing laws to reduce the number of prisoners entering the system, but many of those efforts have failed amid opposition from prosecutors and conservative state officials. One law that reduced penalties for some crimes didn’t work as well as intended, in part because of an uptick in prisoners entering the system.

Ricketts said Thursday that his administration has asked lawmakers for $170 million for the state prisons since he took office, but an increase in offenders entering the system is partly to blame.

“We've got a lot of moving variables here," he said.

In February, Nebraska's inspector general for corrections said lawmakers need to continue monitoring the corrections department and working to fix the problem. He said at the time that building a community corrections center in Omaha for lower-risk offenders would help ease pressure on the other prisons.

Officials also announced Thursday that they'll soon allow prison visits during the week of July 13, after banning them due to the coronavirus.

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