I’m a member of the Nebraska Justice System Special Oversight Committee. The mission of this committee is to study the many serious problems facing our Department of Corrections.
During the course of the summer we toured all 10 correctional facilities. We spoke to staff and prisoners alike. Problems common across the board include over-crowding, understaffing, and high staff turn-over. Mandatory overtime because of the understaffing causes morale problems. The parole situation is a vicious-circle problem. Prisoners otherwise eligible for parole aren’t qualified and can’t be released on parole because they lack the training required to be considered for parole. The pre-parole programs the prisoners need to complete can’t be staffed and operated because of the understaffing problem. Lack of a competitive pay and compensation program makes fixing the staffing problem more difficult.
Since January 2015, the Department of Corrections has reduced the prison population by 25% and the number of prisoners released on parole has increased 136%. During this same time however, the population in our county jails has increased by 46%. I see this as an unfunded mandate on the counties. Nebraska’s prison problem is also now a county problem.
LB 605 was passed in the 104th legislature. It forces Nebraska to reduce the prison population to the designed capacity of the facilities. Presently we’re at about 160%. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against Nebraska in August due to the overcrowding and lack of adequate healthcare for inmates. By 2020, the law mandates reductions in our prison population which I think could result in a public safety problem. This is something the Legislature has to work on. The same could be said for a number of other issues.
We heard testimony from Director Frakes today. I think it is important to point out the Department of Corrections requested funding for 96 fulltime positions in the last budget, and the Legislature only funded 29 of those.
I’ve heard other ideas like “exporting” prisoners to other states with excess prison capacity or hiring a private company and contracting out our correctional services. I don’t like these ideas. These are Nebraska problems that need a Nebraska solution. I support additional funding for the Department of Corrections. Public safety is the very first and most important function of government. I also believe it is not necessary to raise tax revenue to do this. Spending on other state functions can be prioritized and that money reallocated.
Out-of-control property taxes, the prison problem, and a budget shortfall, which will be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, will dominate the next session.