Published Friday, September 6, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 5:05 pm
shortened prison sentences
World-Herald editorial: Good time, bad behavior

Why call it “good time”? How about “half the time”? Because a Nebraska prison sentence generally means only half of what it says.

The case of carjacker and prison bruiser Nikko Jenkins, who now is accused in four killings that took place only weeks after his prison release, calls out for Nebraska legislators to re-examine the 1992 state law that automatically halves the prison terms of most state inmates.

And it shows how difficult this law and subsequent changes have made it for inmates to lose much “good time,” no matter how badly they behave while in prison.

The legislative bill that brought about those changes was LB 816, sponsored by Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha and supported by Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, who now chairs the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee.

Ashford said Thursday that the intent of the 1992 bill, which passed 27-6, was to address inconsistent sentencing by judges and to put into law the use of carrots and sticks to help motivate inmates. It was not meant to be lenient on violent criminals, Ashford said.

Before the 1992 legislation, state law said inmates could earn shortened criminal sentences when they demonstrated good behavior — a sensible approach. But during debate on LB 816, lawmakers removed the words “for good behavior.” That ill-considered change effectively cut sentences in half, without the specific good behavior requirement. Only first-degree murderers and convicts serving rare mandatory minimum sentences saw no benefit.

The public interest is best served by reasonable incentives to encourage acceptable inmate behavior, just as it is served by carefully crafted prison alternatives for nonviolent offenders. Prison officials say they need tools such as “good time” to help them manage their already overcrowded institutions. And they should have them.

But those are rewards that should be earned. The state should set rules that make it perfectly clear which positive acts earn “good time” — and which bad acts will take an inmate’s good time away. Any changes should resurrect those three words that make plain the requirement “for good behavior.”

“Good time” should be a bonus for good behavior in prison, for taking steps toward rehabilitation. On that score, there is an unusual level of agreement among prosecutors, police and advocates for crime victims.

They point to the problems when criminals return home without treating root causes of crime such as mental illness and drug and substance abuse. Taxpayers usually pay more when they offend again.

Ashford says federal court decisions make it difficult, if not impossible, to compel inmates to complete treatment while imprisoned or to participate in prison programs. But lawmakers should look for possible answers. What incentives do other states use?

Legislators already have begun evaluating potential prison alternatives for nonviolent offenders, which could free up cell space for violent, dangerous criminals. It makes sense, also, to include a re-examination of “good time” law in those discussions.

The Jenkins case lends urgency to that effort, because a guy who attacks other inmates, assaults a guard and makes a knife out of a toilet brush surely should have been in custody longer.

The goal should be a fair, predictable process for awarding prisoners “good time” when an inmate’s good behavior earns it — and a fair, predictable, less cumbersome process for forfeiting “good time” when an inmate seriously breaches the rules or the law.

It defies common sense that Jenkins could lose only about 17 months of “good time” after all he was accused of doing while in prison.

Also, regardless of prison crowding issues, it makes sense that additional crimes committed while in prison should lead to additional time in prison. Sentences for assaulting other inmates or guards should be added onto the end of an inmate’s current sentence.

Finally, lawmakers should look at a “truth-in-sentencing” reform that would spell out for the public how much actual time a prisoner is likely to serve. Because of Nebraska’s current “good time” law, prosecutors often must huddle with a crime victim and his family to explain that the sentence they just heard the judge hand down is not what will be served.

Look at what authorities say Jenkins did in prison: He incited a riot. He tried to escape. He committed at least three assaults, including an attack on a guard. He was caught with a weapon. Yet that cost him only about 15 percent of his automatic “good time.”

That’s a good deal for violent criminals but a bad deal for law-abiding Nebraskans.

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