Senator: Nebraska prison crowding likely to get worse

Published: Feb. 6, 2020 at 8:21 AM CST
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Nebraska’s severe prison overcrowding is only going to get worse over the next few years if state officials don’t take more aggressive steps to address the problem, a key state lawmaker said Wednesday.

Sen. Steve Lathrop, of Omaha, told a legislative committee that the state’s prison population is projected to grow so fast that it will outpace the new beds that corrections officials are adding to try to ease pressure on their facilities.

Lathrop made the remarks as he proposed a new, $52 million Omaha community corrections facility to members of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee. The prison would house low-risk inmates as they transition back to society.

“Without some intervention by the Legislature, we’ll be in a perpetual state of overcrowding,” said Lathrop, the chairman of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee.

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. A 2015 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.

Lathrop pointed to estimates by the JFA Institute, a nonprofit criminal justice research group, which estimated that Nebraska’s inmate population will continue to increase even after corrections officials construct the last of their new beds in 2023.

Nebraska’s prisons hold about 2,000 more inmates than their current design capacity of 3,500, according to the Department of Correctional Services. Overcrowding has forced some prisoners to sleep on cots on the floor, while others double-bunk in cells designed for one inmate. Crowding and staffing shortages have also made it more difficult to provide prisoners with rehabilitative programming that could reduce their odds of re-offending.

JFA estimated that Nebraska’s inmate population could top 7,000 by the late 2020s, but the prison system’s design capacity is expected to stay at around 4,000 once all of the new beds are installed.

Scott Frakes, director of Nebraska’s corrections department, said building a new facility in Omaha wouldn’t help because there aren’t enough low-risk offenders to fill it. Frakes said his staff members always try to place prisoners in the least restrictive settings possible, but they also have to consider public safety.

“My overriding concern is that (the proposal) will create an expectation that (the department) assign inmates to community corrections when they are not ready for it,” Frakes said.

Doug Koebernick, a state inspector general who serves as a watchdog over the department, said the department appears to have too much bed space for female inmates and a major shortage of space for men.

Koebernick said crowding at the Nebraska State Penitentiary, a men’s prison in Lincoln, is so severe that it’s a safety risk for the people who work there. If state officials built a community corrections center in Omaha, he said, some of the lower-risk offenders could be moved there to relieve the pressure and help the inmates transition back into society.

“It’s important that the legislature continue to take action to address prison overcrowding,” Koebernick said.

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