The Nebraska Department of Correctional Services took a positive step this week in proposing to double the amount of automatic good time the state can take from inmates who misbehave in prison.
But it was just one step.
This proposed change is a good start toward other changes needed to improve public safety and accountability after a recently released inmate was charged in four Omaha slayings. That inmate, Nikko Jenkins, had been violent while behind bars, and the state could have kept him in prison longer, even under current rules.
Prison officials had the power to revoke more of Jenkins’ automatic good time but didn’t. Such reluctance to send a message to out-of-bounds inmates unfortunately appears common. World-Herald staff writers Matt Wynn and Paul Hammel examined more than 92,000 infractions Nebraska prison officials wrote up for punishment over the past five years and found that inmates lost good time in fewer than 5 percent of the cases.
It’s generally accepted that awarding good time — and allowing sentences to be shortened — serves as a valuable tool for managing inmates. It clearly provides an incentive for good behavior behind bars.
But good time in other states typically is earned with good behavior. Nebraska used to work that way. A 1992 change to state law eliminated the requirement for inmates to demonstrate good behavior and made good time essentially automatic, effectively cutting most prison sentences in half.
That legislation also made the process more cumbersome for prison officials to take away any good time, which is why the prison system’s proposal to increase penalties for inmate misbehavior is a solid first step.
Prison officials also need a clear plan to more consistently pursue an even-handed process for revoking prisoners’ good time when they resort to violence, break the law or breach serious prison rules.
Of the 92,248 inmate infractions over the past five years, less than 1 percent involved murders, assaults and escape attempts, according to The World-Herald’s analysis. Getting tougher with good time for those offenders shouldn’t overload Nebraska’s crowded prison system.
There is a role for the Legislature, too, with lawmakers likely to consider good-time changes as part of a wide array of prison and sentencing reforms plus prison alternatives for nonviolent offenders in 2014.
Much of the administrative gymnastics required to take good time away from troublesome inmates could be avoided with some common-sense changes to the 1992 law.
Good time should be earned, not given freely. It’s hard to call something an incentive if it is awarded automatically and then made difficult to lose.
Parents, think of it this way: How likely are your kids to eat their vegetables if they get dessert first? Yet that’s what Nebraska does.
The state’s prisons are crowded, with about 1,600 more inmates today than they were designed to hold.
Lawmakers will consider a range of options, from spending $130 million or more on a new prison to enhancing and expanding alternatives for nonviolent offenders that potentially could free up space for violent criminals.
These are serious issues.
But so, too, is granting early release to someone like Nikko Jenkins, whose prison record included inciting a riot, committing at least three assaults, trying to escape and being caught with a weapon.
For his behavior — hardly good — he lost only 17½ months of “good time.”