State law aimed at reducing prison population causing Lancaster County jail population to grow

On average, 595 inmates are at the Lancaster County Jail each day. The average daily population has grown by 6.5% over the last year leaving the facility at 89.
Published: Dec. 12, 2022 at 6:17 PM CST
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LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) - On average, 595 inmates are at the Lancaster County Jail each day. The average daily population has grown by 6.5% over the last year leaving the facility at 89.5% operational capacity.

This has the jail, built in 2013 with expansion in mind, filling up faster than officials planned.

“We had two units built for expansion going forward,” Jail Director Brad Johnson said. “But we weren’t staffing them and now we’ve opened both of those units which requires additional staffing that we didn’t budget for.”

In a Lancaster County board meeting Johnson said part of the increase is because of the impacts of LB605, a law passed in the legislature in 2015 aimed at reducing the prison population. In part, in requires misdemeanor sentences of one year or less to be served at county jails, even for consecutive sentences.

“We have one person who has been in the county jail for five years on five one-year sentences,” Johnson said. “County jails aren’t built for sentences that length.”

The bill also made more people eligible for post-release supervision. A 2021 Crime and Justice Institute study found there’s been a 70% increase in probation admissions between 2011 and 2020. 56% of those admissions succeed.

“When those folks fail, that supervision for whatever reason, you know, they don’t come to their meetings, they fail a drug test. And such, they’re given sanctions, and those sanctions are served in our facility.”

Data Johnson has kept shows 1,785 sanctions have been served in the Lancaster County Jail between August 2015 and September 2022, with those inmates serving a total of 27,071 days. This has cost the county more than $3.3 million over seven years. The state gave the county $70,000 a year for the first two years after the law went into effect, but there hasn’t been any financial support since then.

“Which means that the costs of incarcerating those folks are now absorbed by the taxpayers of Lancaster County instead of the state government,” Lancaster County Commissioner Rick Vest said.

Johnson said in the grand scheme of things, less than $500,000 annually to pay for extra inmates isn’t catastrophic. But Vest said the bigger concern is the jail capacity.

“That question just about gave me a heart attack,” Vest said. “I would say one of the biggest single concerns of every member of the county board is how long we can keep our jail population so that we don’t overcrowd our current facility.”

Vest said the JPA put in place to build the jail in 2013 is still being paid off and will be for a while.

“If for some reason the county jail was overcrowded and we had to look at expanding that facility that would be a very difficult conversation to have and a really big burden to put on the property tax payers in Lancaster County,” Vest said.

10/11 NOW spoke with former state senator Bob Krist, who helped draft the bill in 2015. He said the goals were to cut the prison population by at least 1,000 inmates through sentence reforms put together based on an independent study by the Counsel of State Governments.

He said the bill ended up being watered down by “tough on crime” rhetoric and didn’t go as far as they wanted. He said when reforms were suggested, burdens were pushed on to the county because the state didn’t want to pay for it. Krist said financial support for the county jails only lasted for two years because it was cut out in the next budget cycle. Senator Patty Pansing Brooks told 10/11 NOW the legislative body’s lack of taking action on prison reform is now hurting local jails. Krist said new legislation would have to be passed in order to address the county jail’s concerns.