Overcrowding plagues Nebraska prison system

LINCOLN, Neb. – The State of Nebraska ranks in the top two in the country in a category they would rather not – prison overcrowding.

The Cornhusker State and Alabama have rivaled each other for the most overcrowded prison system in the country in the last few years.

In April, 160 beds were added to the Lincoln Correctional Center, but that number isn’t nearly enough to stop an emergency law from going into effect on July 1, 2020.

“Overcrowding creates safety issues and if we can address the overcrowding that helps with the safety and then that helps with the staffing, it's a very complicated problem that needs several solutions,” Doug Koebernick, the Inspector General for the Department of Corrections, said.

Koebernick said the prison system has been feeling the stress of overcrowding for over a decade. Data shows crime has gone down since 2003, but the length of sentences for serious crimes has shot up.

NDCS Stats

“We're not the only state that's had this tough on crime mentality, so the sentences became longer,” Koebernick said. “You had people who were coming into the system, you had more people coming into the system, and for longer periods of time.”

Koebernick gave this data to state senators as the Legislature's Judiciary Committee looks at ways to fix the problem ahead of a July 1, 2020 deadline to get overcrowding under control.

The data shows that in 2003, 11% of the prison population was made up by those serving time for assault. That number has climbed to 20.2% in 2019.

NDCS Offenses

During that time, inmates serving time for sex offenses has nearly tripled, while people serving sentences for homicide went from 2% to 10.7%.

And while this data shows there are more inmates and more inmates serving longer sentences, Koebernick said for the most part, “Nebraska hasn’t added any correctional beds since Tecumseh was built almost 20 years ago.”

“We as Nebraska allowed corrections to tread water, in fact not even tread water, hardly keep its nose above water for way too many years,” Nebraska Department of Corrections Director Scott Frakes said. “And to come out of that is going to take, I hope not the same 15 years, but it's certainly going to take more than the 4 years that we've really focused on this.”

NDCS Crimes

The State Penitentiary is one of the three most overcrowded NDCS facilities.

Recent numbers show it's at 187% capacity.

Omaha Community Corrections is at 200% design capacity, while the Diagnostic and Evaluation Center in Lincoln is at 323%.

"So you have all these people in a smaller location, you don't have the services for those folks, so the inmates in that facility and some of the other facilities, they act out, they're not able to get the programs they want, they don't have the access to the law library or the classrooms, things like that or jobs, so if you don't have a population that's engaged and active and busy, then they get into more trouble,” Koebernick said.

In 15 months, July 1, 2020, The Nebraska Emergency Overcrowding act will kick in. The law says up until July 1, 2020 the Governor has the option of declaring an overcrowding emergency. After July 1, 2020 the law says if NDCS is over 140% of design capacity an overcrowding emergency will kick in.

That sets off a process to then possibly releasing people until they get down to 125% of design capacity.

The question is if state law isn't changed, will there be a mass release?

“When you're talking about public safety, the parole board is going to prioritize... and they're not going to let anyone out of the corrections system that's not prepared to be released, so they're going to follow their guidelines,” Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts said. "They're supposed to look for ways to accelerate it, but they're not going to let anybody out that's not supposed to be let out."

"The question is how many candidates they think are good candidates? And the problem is there really isn't that big of a pool either. There's only about 900 people right now that are past their parole eligibility date," said Koebernick, "So if we're to try to get to that 125% number today, we couldn't even hit it just with the people who are eligible for parole."

Director Frakes has asked for nearly $50 million in the upcoming 2-year budget, to add 384 beds at the Lincoln Correctional Center (LCC).

Those beds though, would not be availabe for about 4-5 years, well after the overcrowding emergency deadline.

Right now, if all parole eligible inmates were released, the prison population didn't change and those beds were added overcrowding would drop to under 120%.

There's also Senator Steve Lathrop's bill in the Nebraska Legislature, which would change the emergency overcrowding law, by stair stepping down the percent overcrowding deadlines over a two year time period.

To find out more about that bill, click on the link at the top right hand side of this story.