The writer, of Lincoln, is a businessman and a former chairman of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He is a member of the board and volunteer with Prison Fellowship.
When Nikko Jenkins, 27, was arrested in the murders of four people within weeks of his release from a Nebraska prison, it was the most recent incident involving offenders on work release or recently released from custody. In the wake of these events, Robert Houston, Nebraska’s director of the Department of Correctional Services (DCS) since 2005, tendered his resignation after a career spanning 38 years.
On a daily basis, corrections officials and staff in Nebraska stand on the front lines of the effort to protect public safety while also promoting the moral rehabilitation of offenders. When tragic events unfold, these professionals often become the focus of increased public scrutiny.
But it would be unfair to put the DCS under a microscope without also examining the bigger picture. Just as education matters to more than elementary school teachers, crime prevention should not solely be a job for one department with limited resources. It should involve all of society.
The time is ripe for the private sector and faith-based organizations to offer their voices, resources and hands to crime prevention efforts in Nebraska.
In recent years, because of budgetary constraints, DCS expenditures have been substantially reduced. The ratio of officers to inmates — an important safety factor — has gotten worse. Our Nebraska prison facilities now house 49 percent more inmates than they were designed to hold. As things now stand, there is not nearly enough funding for anger management classes, mental health counselors and other programming approaches that make released offenders less likely to commit new crimes.
These budget cuts make the difficult job of the DCS even harder, and frankly, they are risky. Merely “warehousing” prisoners because of funding shortfalls has proven inadequate to help inmates turn their lives around.
Simply increasing the corrections budget would not be the silver bullet of crime prevention, even if we could afford it. But neither can we continue to pursue the status quo.
To bridge the gap and improve services to offenders, families and victims, we need everyone — businesses, churches, government agencies and service providers — to come alongside DCS as partners to create safer communities for us all. Gov. Dave Heineman and the DCS have embraced the concept of cooperation and collaboration with the private sector and faith-based organizations.
For example, at a juvenile facility in Omaha, young offenders between the ages of 14 and 21 are being granted access to a college education through partnerships with Metropolitan Community College and the Omaha business community, which have generously offered to cover tuition and help with job placement for qualified graduates. A Lincoln church has agreed to waive fees for prisoners’ children to attend its parochial school. A pilot mentorship program, relying on Prison Fellowship volunteers, has been established to help offenders who are held in administrative confinement adjust to prison life and find alternatives to violence.
These community-wide efforts are examples of how we might achieve safer communities at lower costs.
These programs, made possible without a dime of taxpayer money, are just a taste of what could happen if the private sector and faith-based communities embraced the possibilities of partnering with jails, prisons, community corrections programs and probation and parole offices.
Prison Fellowship and its criminal justice reform arm, Justice Fellowship, look forward to a continued and deepening partnership with the DCS. We also hope to engage state legislators in a discussion about fiscally responsible, common-sense reforms.
No one can say whether access to improved correctional programming could have prevented the recent spate of tragedies. Crime remains a moral choice made by individuals.
But it would be unwise to allow recent events to return us to tough-on-crime policies, which are fiscally irresponsible and have already failed to promote change in the hearts and lives of offenders. For a better future, we need greater investment in crime prevention and prisoner rehabilitation by all sectors of society.