Emergency overcrowding situation declared in state prisons, parole hearings to be accelerated

Published: Jun. 25, 2020 at 9:43 AM CDT
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The overcrowding within Nebraska prisons has now been declared an emergency.

There was talk this would lead to a mass release of parole eligible inmates, but Corrections Director Scott Frakes said this would not happen.

State law gave the department until July 1, 2020 to make this emergency declaration or get the prison population down to 125 percent of capacity. Right now they're at 151 percent, setting the declaration into motion.

"We have been above 140 percent capacity since 2009," Frakes said.

Right now there are 5,412 inmates in Nebraska's prisons, that's nearly 1,900 more than the designed capacity.

Despite this, Frakes said the only action being taken is to ramp up the parole board's efforts.

"We are going to see more people," Rosalyn Cotton, chair of the board said. "We will consider and reconsider those people. But we've been doing this all along."

She said each case will be considered individually.

"Public safety is the basis of every decision," Cotton said.

Frakes said of the 804 parole eligible inmates, 35 percent have already served a parole term and ended up back in prison. Twenty-three percent haven't completed recommended clinical programming, 94 percent of that group refused.

They hope this renewed effort to speed up parole systems will encourage inmates.

"Maybe some of those who have refused in the past or are now interested in parole, at this point we will engage them and work with them into hopefully thinking parole is the best thing for them," Cotton said.

Inspector General of the Corrections Department Doug Koebernick said he doesn't see how this will increase the number of inmates paroled.

"This is already what they do," he said.

Frakes said releasing drug offenders isn't an option either.

"We don't have a pool of low level drug offenders to pull from," Frakes said. "When it comes to drug offenses only 14 percent of those eligible for parole have drug offenses as their most serious offenses."

He said most of that 14 percent who do have drug offenses as their most serious have an average of 20 prior convictions.

Frakes said paroling inmates isn't going to solve this problem.

He suggests the state build a new prison.

"We've been under-built as a state for at least 40 years," Frakes said. "It could go further back than that."

Recently Frakes started looking into building a new prison that could hold 1,600 inmates. It's estimated to cost more than $200 million, but none of those plans have been finalized.

Koebernick said the state can't build their way out of this.

He said sentencing reform and other solutions must be discussed by the department and by the legislature.

"The parole board and directors are in a tough place because they can't control what's coming in," Koebernick said. "So they're the point people on this but there are way more people that need to be involved and engaged."

Koebernick said this problem isn't going to be solved quickly. He's looking forward to seeing the solutions the legislature can bring to the table.

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