LINCOLN — A national think tank that has helped 17 states to reduce prison overcrowding and control spending on corrections programs has now agreed to assist Nebraska.
A team from the Council of State Governments' Justice Center is planning a mid-November visit to the Cornhusker State to help state lawmakers draft a plan to address overcrowding and other problems facing state corrections.
State Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha said Thursday that the Lexington, Ky.-based organization's staffers will meet with state officials to dig into data and determine why Nebraska's prison population has risen to about 51 percent over capacity and what changes can be made to address that problem.
Ashford, who has formed a working group to look at prison legislation, said it was some positive news as lawmakers try to address overcrowding, and how to respond to a series of deadly incidents over the past year connected to recently released inmates, or those on work release or furloughs from prison.
“It usually takes six months to a year to get these things organized,” the senator said.
“They realize how important it is for Nebraska to have a package ready by Jan. 1, so they're expediting the process.”
The visit and the advice will be free because the Legislature is a member of the Council of State Governments.
“They have a proven track record of helping states,” said Omaha Sen. Heath Mello, chairman of the Appropriations Committee and a member of the prison working group.
Over the past 20 years, spending by states on corrections has more than quadrupled.
But with recent budget constraints, even conservative groups have backed “justice reinvestment” approaches that opt for lower-cost options to incarceration.
Texas, one of the states helped by the Justice Center, avoided $1.5 billion in prison construction costs and $340 million in annual operating costs, and closed three state prisons by diverting money into probation and parole programs, drug courts and other alternatives.
Marshall Clement, director of state initiatives for the council, said Wednesday that in North Carolina, his organization was able to identify deficiencies in probation supervision and risk assessment. By changing how existing funds were being spent, Clement said the state reduced its prison population by 9 percent over the past two years.
“So you can have a big impact fairly quickly and improve public safety at the same time,” Clement said.
Ashford, Gov. Dave Heineman and others have called for changes that would help Nebraska avoid the estimated $130 million to $150 million cost of a new state prison to deal with the overcrowding. However, Ashford and Mello have estimated the state will have to spend upwards of $25 million on alternatives to building a prison.
Whether the Heineman administration will participate in the Justice Center's study was unclear Thursday. The Governor's Office didn't return a message seeking comment, though in the past he has said he planned to be engaged in the prison debate.
In a letter this week to state budget officials, State Corrections Director Mike Kenney said “his priority” since being named to the job a month ago has been the issue of prison capacity.
He indicated his department would be asking the Legislature for additional money to address its problems. Kenney was appointed after former Director Bob Houston abruptly retired.
Several options have been discussed to relieve overcrowding in the short term including using county jails and renovating a now-closed jail facility in Lincoln's Air Park area.