A new consultant’s report says long prison sentences and mandatory minimums are major contributors to Nebraska’s chronic prison overcrowding,
The study by the Crime and Justice Institute was requested by Nebraska lawmakers, Gov. Pete Ricketts, and the courts to try to identify ways to reduce the state’s inmate population without compromising public safety.
Institute policy and campaigns director Len Engel says his group found Nebraska’s prison population increased 21% over the last decade largely because of tough-on-crime policies in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s.
Part of that was the frequency of consecutive sentences for low-level, non-violent felonies – a practice that resulted in longer prison terms.
Although everyone agrees Nebraska does have a prison overcrowding problem that must be resolved, there’s no clear agreement on how to do that – especially not among the Nebraska lawmakers who will have to fund any changes.
State Senator Steve Lathrop of Omaha, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, says the report produced some recommendations where all stakeholders agreed and others where lawmakers “will have a serious policy debate.”
State Senator Suzanne Geist of Lincoln says she’s concerned the report could lead to policies that jeopardize public safety. Geist says some inmates were convicted of low-level non-violent felonies as part of plea deals to avoid more serious charges.
One proposed policy change that will be debated in this year’s legislative session is building a $230-million prison to both ease overcrowding and replace the 153-year old State Penitentiary in Lincoln, a project strongly supported by Governor Ricketts.
Lawmakers last year approved the concept and funded preliminary design work, but delayed a decision on construction – in large part to wait and see the Crime and Justice Institute report found.