Prison furlough program allowed early release for Nebraska inmates convicted of violent crimes

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LINCOLN, Nebraska — Nebraska's prison system freed 162 inmates convicted of violent crimes under an early release furlough program that was approved without public hearings, a prominent state senator revealed Wednesday.

The inmates were released before their parole dates under regulations that violated state law, Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha said. Among those released were inmates convicted of second-degree murder, manslaughter, kidnapping and child abuse.

The program was revealed during a hearing with Gov. Dave Heineman, who was subpoenaed to testify under oath as part of a legislative committee's investigation into miscalculated sentences and other prison problems. Lathrop, who is chairman of the committee, said his staff was conservative in its count of which inmates were counted as violent.

Lathrop said he believed the program was part of an effort to reduce prison crowding without having to resort to more expensive options, such as a new multimillion-dollar prison.

"Parole wasn't getting people out the door fast enough," Lathrop said after the seven-hour hearing. "Overcrowding was driving the bus."

The Department of Correctional Services has faced criticism for its handling of inmates, including hundreds who were released too early because officials failed to follow sentencing rules established by the Nebraska Supreme Court.

Heineman said Wednesday morning that he was unaware of the details of the furlough regulations, which were approved in 2008 by former state corrections director Bob Houston. The Republican governor repeatedly clashed with Lathrop, a Democrat, over the program and prison crowding during the hearing.

"It's easy to go back and do some Monday morning quarterbacking here," Heineman said. "I don't know what's occurred, and I want to find more information."

Lathrop said state law required either a public hearing for the administrative program, or a waiver approved by the governor and attorney general. It also needed to be filed with the secretary of state's office, which was never done, Lathrop said.

But Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning and the Department of Correctional Services argued Wednesday that the regulations in question were lawful. They pointed to an exemption for rules related to "internal management of the agency not affecting private rights, private interests, or procedures available to the public."

In a statement Wednesday, the corrections department also defended the program as a tool to help inmates who have less than 18 months left on their sentences return to society. The agency allowed inmates convicted of violent crimes to participate starting in September 2010.

The program "helps prepare individuals to be successful upon release and provides an opportunity to establish a successful parole/discharge plan," department spokeswoman Dawn-Renee Smith said in a written statement.

Lathrop said the program was approved under pressure to ease crowding in the state's prison system.

Heineman said the issues were unrelated, and he wouldn't want to see dangerous inmates freed. He also repeatedly countered that lawmakers didn't seek or approve funding for a new state prison to alleviate the crowding.

"You're trying to put it all on us when there are three branches of government," Heineman said.

Heineman and many lawmakers have said they want to avoid building a new prison because of the expense.

Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha pressed the governor on why he hadn't fired the department's current director, Mike Kenney, who was appointed after the program was created. Kenney "was captain of the ship when it ran aground," Chambers said, and other top administrators should also be forced to leave.

Heineman said Kenney inherited many of the problems when he took the job and expressed confidence that he could still correct them.

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