Correction: Miscalculated Sentences-Nebraska story

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OMAHA, Nebraska — In a story July 29 about miscalculated prison sentences at the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, The Associated Press misspelled a state senator's name. It is Sen. Heath Mello, and not Health Mello.

A corrected version of the story is below:

Some call for investigation of sentencing errors

Some Nebraskans seek investigation of state prison sentencing errors, legislative action


Associated Press

OMAHA, Nebraska — Some Nebraskans are calling for an investigation of the Department of Correctional Services and possible legislative action after internal emails showed officials knew sentences were being calculated incorrectly for hundreds of prisoners and didn't correct the problem.

The Omaha World-Herald reported earlier this week on emails that show corrections officials disregarding a Nebraska Supreme Court ruling last year on mandatory minimum sentences.

Nearly 600 sentences had to be recalculated after the problem was discovered earlier this summer. Most of the sentences that had to be extended were for inmates still in prison, but dozens of prisoners had to be tracked down after being released early.

Omaha attorney James Martin Davis said the internal emails make it appear the sentences were calculated incorrectly on purpose. That could make it a criminal matter, so Davis said an outside investigation is needed.

"This wasn't just simple negligence. It was intentional acts," Davis said.

In the emails the World-Herald obtained, the department's retired records manager told her bosses in February 2013 that complying with the Supreme Court order and recalculating hundreds of sentences would be a "real mess."

She went on to recommend sticking with the department's tried-and-true method of determining sentences so prison population wouldn't increase more than needed.

Gov. Dave Heineman said Tuesday that a Lincoln law firm hired by the corrections department will conduct a thorough review of what happened and why certain decisions were made. That review is expected to be completed shortly, but it doesn't have a firm deadline.

"Once these facts are known, decisions can be made and appropriate actions can be taken," Heineman said.

A legislative committee that was created to investigate a separate case plans to widen its probe to include the sentencing errors, and the committee has already subpoenaed thousands of documents. Omaha state Sen. Steve Lathrop, who leads that committee, said the first hearing will feature Bob Houston, the corrections department's former director.

"The important question in all of this is was the prison overpopulation driving the decisions," Lathrop said.

State Sen. Heath Mello, of Omaha, who leads the Appropriations Committee, said the Legislature needs to provide more oversight over the corrections officials and that he may propose creating an inspector general's post that would oversee the department.

"I think the department of corrections has broken the public trust," Mello said.

State Sen. Brad Ashford said he thinks a special legislative session to address the prison system problems should be convened this fall, before more than a dozen experienced lawmakers leave office at the end of the year.

"We have a real crisis that was made much, much worse by the failure of the department of corrections to comply with the law," Ashford said.

If state lawmakers had known about the miscalculated sentences earlier this year during the legislative session, Ashford said the prison reforms senators passed may have included more oversight.

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