LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska’s corrections department is launching new software that will calculate prisoner sentences automatically, reducing the risk of errors that could lead to an inmate getting released too early, officials announced Wednesday.
Department of Correctional Services Director Scott Frakes said employees will start using the program on Saturday. He praised the technology as a way to improve accuracy and efficiency.
“This is big,” Frakes said in a briefing with reporters at the department’s central administrative office.
Frakes said he’s confident the software will help the department avoid the widespread sentencing errors under previous administrations, which resulted in hundreds of inmates not completing their full court-ordered sentences.
The department announced in 2014 that it released more than 300 prisoners too early because it failed to follow two state Supreme Court rulings that spelled out the correct way to calculate sentences. Most were allowed to remain free because their correct release date had passed, but some were returned to prison or placed on parole to complete the rest of their sentences.
About 600 others who were still in custody at the time had their release dates changed. Some prison employees at the time told a legislative committee that they suspected the sentences contained errors, but were afraid to bring the issue to their superiors.
Frakes said the new system can be adjusted to account for new court rulings and legislation that changes how sentences should be calculated. It’s the latest in a series of steps the director has taken to reform the department since he took the job 19 months ago.
The department has also moved the office of its records administrator next to the agency’s legal division, which has improved communication, said Julie Smith, the department’s lead attorney.
Last week, Frakes unveiled a budget request that includes a $15.6 million increase to reduce staffing shortages and turnover in Nebraska’s prisons. If approved, it would allow the department to hire roughly 165 full-time employees in a variety of jobs and boost the department’s total budget to nearly $223 million.
In addition, the department is asking lawmakers for $75.2 million over four years to build a new reception and treatment center in Lincoln for elderly and severely mentally ill inmates.
The software upgrade will mean small adjustments for some inmate sentences. When determining prison terms, the department has traditionally counted each month as a 30-day period because doing so made it easier to calculate a sentence by hand.
With the new system, department employees can now know exactly how long an inmate is supposed to serve. As a result, Frakes said roughly half of the department’s inmates could see their release dates shortened or extended by an average of two to five days.
The new system was projected to cost $477,000 when it was approved in 2015, but a department spokeswoman said officials won’t know the final price tag until after it’s fully implemented.