Senators consider changing timeline on prison overcrowding emergency

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LINCOLN, Neb. (KOLN) - Nebraska's prison system currently has 2,127 more inmates that it's designed for, putting the system at 163% capacity.

If that number doesn't go down, Nebraska must declare a prison overcrowding emergency on July 1., 2020.

Unless senators decide to change state law.

Frustration is what led State Senator Steve Lathrop to introduce a bill that would change the timeline for what happens after a Correctional System Overcrowding Emergency is declared.

Current law says if the total NDCS prison population is above 140% of design capacity on July 1, 2020, then the governor must declare an overcrowding emergency.

Sen. Lathrop said, "Then it's incumbent upon the parole board to basically look through the list of inmates and begin paroling inmates until they get to 125%. Will that happen in one afternoon? It will not. Most certainly the parole board, mindful of its obligation under statute and to be mindful of public safety, will do that in a thoughtful way."

Rather than a hard 15% cut, Senator Lathrop is proposing to stair step the reduction in six months increments. From July 1, 2020 through December 31, 2020 NDCS would need to get to 140%. Then starting January 1, 2021 through June 31, 2021 NDCS would need to drop the population to 135%. During the July 1, 2021 to December 31, 2021 time period the law would require NDCS be at 130%. Finally the department would need to be at 125% after January 1, 2022.

Lathrop said, "Instead of doing it all in one year and in one emergency, it allows or affords the department of corrections to basically do it over time."

Prison Director Scott Frakes testified against LB 686 at the Capitol on Wednesday.

He told members of the Judiciary Committee, "Creating arbitrary benchmarks that are not possible to attain within the described time frames will do nothing to improve our prison system. It will not cause the prison population to drop to an acceptable level. Measures to address crowding take time, strategic planning and perseverance."

When asked if he preferred the current state law or the bill, he stressed it remains his goal to get below 140% design capacity by next July.

But added "[You] can't deny the impact of a ballooning inmate population". He said as of March 17, 932 inmates had either reached or passed their parole eligibility date.

"Even if all 932 of those individuals were paroled today, we would still be at 135% of design capacity," Frakes said.

The population as of Wednesday morning was 5,502 inmates. The design capacity for all of the NDCS facilities is 3,375 inmates. Putting the total at 163% of capacity. A number that just continues to go up. The NDCS Inspector General said the only state that has recently had a higher prison overcrowding problem is Alabama.

Frakes said, "The increase in population we've seen in the last 10 months, doesn't bode well, it troubles me." He added, "If you want me to definitively say I'll be there on this date I can't, because everything is in flux."

Instead he repeatedly stressed to members of the judiciary committee what he needs is for the $50 million capital budget request to be approved. Part of that request will add 384 beds at Community Corrections in Lincoln.

"It's important that we build beds thoughtfully and at the right time."

Some of the money in the budget request would also switch the security levels of the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution and LCC.

Governor Pete Ricketts told 10/11 NOW, "[This will] allow for us to take Tecumseh and turn it into a medium security prison, which in turn will help with some of the staffing issues down there."

Senator Lathrop said, "I'm not opposed myself to the additional beds, on the other hand, that's not, that's doesn't those don't come online for 3 years, they don't help us one bit with the impending overcrowding emergency in my judgement."

The Judiciary Committee made LB 686 one of its two priority bills. That means it will advance to the full Legislature. The key provisions to change the timeline if a Correctional System Overcrowding Emergency is declared are expected to remain, but senators will also add parts of other bills to create an overall corrections reform bill. Senator Lathrop said conversations on what should be added to the overall bill are expected to start next week.