LINCOLN, Neb. — Lawmakers are racing against the clock to find a solution for Nebraska’s persistent prison overcrowding problem as adjournment nears and a deadline to reduce the inmate population looms.
Debate on a new corrections package is slated to begin this week, and key lawmakers say they’re hopeful it will help fix overcrowding problems that have plagued the Department of Correctional Services for years.
With just 12 working days left in the session, “the clock is ticking,” said Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, of Lincoln.
Lawmakers and Gov. Pete Ricketts have repeatedly attempted to reduce Nebraska’s inmate population without compromising public safety, but the numbers haven’t fallen as fast as predicted.
Nebraska’s prisons held a combined daily average of 5,229 prisoners last year in facilities that were designed to hold 3,275, placing them at roughly 160 percent of their design capacity, according to the department. Lawmakers have imposed a July 1, 2020, deadline to lower that total to 140 percent of capacity.
If the department doesn’t reach that goal, an “overcrowding emergency” will be declared and officials will have to consider paroling all eligible inmates.
The package assembled by the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee was crafted in hopes of passing it with little opposition, said Sen. Laura Ebke, the committee’s chairwoman. Ebke, of Crete, said lawmakers have removed or revised parts of the measure that could become contentious.
“Our goal is to move the needle and to get something passed,” Ebke said.
Nebraska’s corrections department has faced criticism for years about a litany of problems, including two deadly riots in a two-year span and the June 2016 escape of two inmates.
Nebraska lawmakers and Gov. Pete Ricketts have worked with national consultants, increased funding for prisons and passed several major laws designed to reduce the crowding, but the problem has persisted.
Understaffing and high employee turnover have contributed to the problem, said Sen. Bob Krist, of Omaha. A 2017 report from a special legislative committee found 301 vacant staff positions, with an average of 37 employees leaving positions each month. Staff members are often required to work long shifts and mandatory overtime due to the shortage.
“The really tough part of that issue is that it’s not all about money,” said Krist, who is also running for governor. “It’s about workplace environment and it’s about the safety of those corrections officers, as well.”
The state also faces a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska and other groups alleging that state officials have failed to provide adequate medical and mental health care to inmates, a problem exacerbated by overcrowding and staffing shortages.
Nebraska’s corrections department completed a new 100-bed unit in September to house work-release inmates. The project was the first phase of an effort to add 660 beds to the prison system, plus a new medical wing and prisoner dining and kitchen facilities in Lincoln.
Ricketts recommended in this year’s budget for 100 new beds to be built at the state penitentiary. Spokesman Taylor Gage said it is the governor’s top priority on corrections.
The package of bills introduced this year represents the culmination of three exhaustive reviews by legislative committees, Krist said. He said lawmakers need to act this year and expressed disappointment that overcrowding persists.
“We’ve looked at the problem, we’ve talked about it, we’ve studied it and there seems to be a lack of leadership on the subject matter,” he said.
Measures in the package would require a regular staffing analysis to look at employment levels and needs within the mental health department, direct the Nebraska State Patrol to investigate criminal activity within the facilities and house inmates temporarily in county jail facilities. The package also would allow the early release of inmates who are terminally ill and create a procedure that would attempt to reduce recidivism by protecting inmates who are at risk of overdosing on opioids after their release.
Ricketts opposes the measure and “has serious concerns with many of the problematic provisions currently contained in the LB 841 package,” Gage said.
Ebke said she expects about five of the attached bills will face little opposition because lawmakers and corrections administrators have worked together to create “common-sense” bills and addressed concerns prior to legislative floor debate. She said bills that could face opposition may be removed before floor debate to ensure the package is passed.
“We’re trying to figure out what we can move and what we can’t and work for something that both the executive and legislative branch can agree on to move the needle, even if it’s just a little bit,” Ebke said.