Nebraska officials look at different options to reduce overcrowding in state prison system

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LINCOLN, Nebraska — Nebraska's top office-holders are looking at ways to reduce crowding in the state prison system and say they will likely push for changes once lawmakers convene next year.

On Wednesday, officials from all three branches of state government met in Lincoln to hear from the Council of State Governments, a national group that conducts research for local, state and federal governments.

Nebraska lawmakers started looking at overcrowding earlier this year as part of a prison reform effort that aims to avoid possible federal intervention or the construction of a costly new prison.

The prisons were operating at 157 percent of their total design capacity as of Sept. 30, with 5,151 inmates registered at 10 state facilities. At the same time last year, the prisons were at 150 percent of their capacity.

Last year, 41 percent of the inmates admitted to a Nebraska prison were convicted of low-level felonies and misdemeanors. Most of those convictions were for non-violent crimes, and in many cases, the inmates were freed with little or no post-release supervision. Without that supervision, many ended up committing new crimes. Nebraska's prison crowding is driven by a combination of factors, said Marc Pelka, program director for the Council of State Governments Justice Center.

Inmates sentenced to probation were less likely to reoffend, Pelka said. Nebraska has spent an additional $22 million in community-based treatment programs since 2006, but most of that increase comes from a law passed this year which pumped millions into substance abuse and mental health treatment programs.

Pelka said many sentences are imposed in a way that doesn't give inmates much time to spend on supervised parole.

The number of paroles granted also surged 78 percent between 2009 and last year, but as a result, fewer prisoners were eligible if they were still behind bars. More people also had their parole revoked — but of those who returned to prison, half were later released with no supervision.

"As the population on supervised parole grows, there needs to be the tools in place to manage it," Pelka said.

The prisons are also taking more new inmates, and those who are incarcerated are serving longer sentences, Pelka said.

Lawmakers established the 19-member working group earlier this year. It's led by Gov. Dave Heineman, Speaker of the Legislature Greg Adams and Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Heavican. Heavican has said judges are interested in having viable alternatives at sentencing.

Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha he expects lawmakers will introduce legislation next year based on the group's recommendations.

"I believe it's in our best interest for the state to move forward with this," Krist said, noting that the U.S. Justice Department intervened in California's prison system because of severe overcrowding.

Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha said the group is preparing recommendations now so that lawmakers and their staffs have time to prepare legislation. Senators may focus on Nebraska's supervised release program or the state's sentencing structure, he said.

Heineman, who leaves office in January due to term limits, said the group will meet again in December to discuss how to proceed. Heineman said the next governor and key senators should also be briefed before next year's legislative session.

"We need to put all of the options on the table," Heineman said.

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