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Criminal Justice data shows Nebraskans are serving longer sentences in prison, contributing to overcrowding

Nebraskan's prison facilities are at 146% capacity overall. New research shows the cause of...
Nebraskan's prison facilities are at 146% capacity overall. New research shows the cause of that overcrowding could be longer stays in facilities.(KOLN)
Published: Oct. 19, 2021 at 5:51 PM CDT
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LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) - Nebraska’s prisons remain in an overcrowding emergency, at the same time they’re seeing critical staff shortages.

It’s a combination that has lawmakers, corrections staff and the loved ones of inmates calling for change.

For the last few months, the state has been working with a non-profit to help identify the factors that lead to the Department of Corrections being 145% over capacity. Now, some of the findings have been released.

The Nebraska Judicial System released nearly 100 pages of Powerpoint presentations put together by the Criminal Justice Institute, which has been digging through data from the police, the court system, corrections, parole and more. The documents, were initially requested by the Omaha World Herald. Governor Pete Ricketts refused to release them, at which time the courts overturned his decision.

10/11 NOW received a copy of those reports Tuesday afternoon, learning the CJI’s key finding when it comes to overcrowding is that Nebraskans are serving more time in prison.

“People are staying longer, getting longer sentencing, serving longer portions of their sentences, serving more time before being released to parole,” Len Engel, with the Criminal Justice Institute said.

Between 2011 and 2021 Nebraska’s prison population increased 21%, even though the state’s admissions to prison have dropped in that same time frame.

“The increasing length of stay in prison has impacted the population significantly,” Engel said.

Engel said the length of stays likely is due to policy changes made over the last 30 to 40 years.

“Policies related to sentencing, more severe sentencing, more restrictions on parole release, a reduction in the use of parole,” Engel said.

Other findings show that despite harsher sentences, recidivism rates haven’t budged. They’re up to 30% of inmates compared to 27% a few years ago.

“One of the concerns expressed in our working group is we’re spending a lot more on corrections in 2020 and 2021 than we did in 2011 but we aren’t getting the public safety benefit,” Engel said.

Spending is up 34% since 2011.

The study also found one out of every six inmates released on parole fails and ends up back in a facility.

Engel said when they see statistics like that, they look at programming options.

“In NDCS there’s quite a bit of programming,” Engel said. “The question is, is it accessible. We know from work in other states if you have overcrowding in a prison environment there’s less opportunity for programming and job skills and specialized treatments.”

Engel also said reduced staffing levels can also impact an inmate’s ability to access programming.

Outside of prison, access to programming is important as well.

Right now, one out of every six inmates on parole fails and ends up back in prison.

“The moment a person is released or gets probation if they can quickly get support and services the likelihood of recidivism decreases,” Engel said.

He said that’s particularly a problem in rural Nebraska.

The Criminal Justice Institute has covered many, many more topics that just prison admissions, length of stays and recidivism rates.

Engel said the working group tackling these issues have shown “a lot of willingness” to make changes.

“This group seems very intent on proposing recommendations to the legislature in the 2022 session,” Engel said. “These recommendations are targeted to address the use of incarceration, improve outcomes in the community, improve access to services, get services in places where they’re not. It requires training, requires staff, requires leadership. There’s a lot of moving parts on this.”

Engel also said it’s going to take money to make these changes.

10/11 NOW reached out to Ricketts for comment on how the process is going. His spokesperson said there aren’t any updates at this point as they’re still gathering data but he would provide an update once that was complete.

Over the next few months, the working group will continue meeting with one another and representatives. They’ll have a final meeting in December.

The next legislative session starts in January.

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