LINCOLN — All Nebraska prison inmates convicted of violent crimes and major felonies would be supervised on release under legislation designed to reduce repeat crimes and relieve prison overcrowding.
Currently, about one-third of inmates “jam” out of prison without any parole supervision or oversight. That was the case with Nikko Jenkins, who stands accused of four killings in the Omaha area shortly after he completed his prison sentence July 30.
Mandatory supervised release would improve public safety, said State Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, by better preparing and monitoring inmates as they transition back into society and by heading off repeat crimes.
“My dream is that we'll get fewer people re-entering the prison system and more people becoming successful members of society,” Ashford said. “But it will take a shift in how we look at these people.”
Prison reform is expected to be among the top issues for state lawmakers, who begin a 60-day session on Wednesday.
Overcrowding of state prisons has reached record levels. As of Friday, they held 1,687 inmates beyond their design capacity, or about 53 percent over capacity.
Prison officials also have been criticized for a string of deadly incidents involving inmates who were on work release or furloughs or who had recently finished prison sentences.
Ashford, who heads the Legislature's Judiciary Committee, launched a study of prison reform in the wake of the Jenkins case.
He said Nebraska needs to follow the lead of other states that have successfully reduced repeat crimes and lowered prison populations by “reinvesting” criminal justice dollars into less-costly alternatives to incarceration.
For instance, it costs about $33,600 a year to house an inmate at the State Penitentiary in Lincoln, but about 1/10th of that amount to supervise one on probation.
Currently about 26 percent of inmates released from prison commit new crimes and return within three years. State prison populations continue to rise despite a 13 percent drop in violent crime over the past five years.
Ashford said those are indicators of a “broken system” that is not making the public safer.
“We build more prisons and fill the prisons. That's the old way,” he said. “We have to move to a smarter way of dealing with criminal offenders.”
Jenkins, he said, would have been better served with an electronic ankle monitor on supervised release and could have received more help with mental health concerns. That might have headed off some of the crimes he's accused of, though there's no guarantee.
“What we need to do is manage the risk, and make it less,” he said.
Gov. Dave Heineman has joined Ashford and other lawmakers in saying they want to avoid building a new state prison, which could cost an estimated $130 million.
Heineman said he's “very interested” in Ashford's proposal on supervised release but wants to see the details. He said he also backs exploring alternatives to prison, such as placing nonviolent criminals in drug courts or on probation.
He emphasized that there are several elements to prison reform, including his proposal to require violent offenders such as Jenkins to earn good-time reductions in their sentences.
Under Nebraska's current good-time law, an inmate receives a one-day reduction in sentence for every day he serves, effectively cutting the sentence in half. Prison officials can take away good time for serious misbehavior, including assaults, but rarely do, according to a World-Herald analysis.
Heineman said he's done all he can administratively by getting a new Corrections Department regulation passed so that twice as much good time can be taken away from inmates who break the rules.
Now, he said, it's time for the Legislature to change the good-time law so that it must be earned rather than awarded automatically.
Heineman said he's not concerned about a promise from Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha to fight any attempt to change good time policy. Chambers is a defender of inmate rights and a master at filibustering legislation.
“No one's been more respectful of Sen. Chambers than I am,” Heineman said. “But he's one senator.”
Chambers did not respond to phone messages left last week.
Ashford is not a supporter of additional changes in the good time policy. He said he doesn't believe that earned time would make the public safer and thinks that it could exacerbate overcrowding.
Heineman said inmates would quickly learn that they need to behave in prison to earn reductions. If they don't, they deserve to remain behind bars.
“There are a few who might be in (prison) longer, but those are the few who ought to be in longer,” he said.
Heineman also parted ways with Ashford on another proposal, to create a State Justice Reinvestment Council.
Ashford said the council, consisting of prison, parole, probation and law enforcement officials, would study and adopt alternatives to prison, reinvesting money saved by avoiding new prison construction and lowering inmate populations.
Heineman said he's not a fan of new layers of bureaucracy.
Nebraska would not be the first state to adopt a supervised release approach.
Seven states, including Kansas and Kentucky, have adopted mandatory supervised release programs in recent years, according to the Pew Charitable Trust's public safety performance project, which has worked with dozens of states on prison reform.
A recent Pew study in New Jersey found that inmates released after parole supervision had a much lower rate of recidivism, 25 percent, than inmates released without any supervision, 39 percent.
The report offers even more evidence that proper supervision can reduce repeat crimes, said Ryan King, Pew's research director.
King said several states have found similar success. The key, he said, is to properly match inmates with needed counseling, mental health and job services; have enough services available in communities; and utilize evidence-based approaches that have proved successful.
“If you're doing this well ... it will limit recidivism, and you're going to see an impact on prison populations,” King said.
About 2,800 inmates leave Nebraska prisons every year. More than 60 percent are released via parole supervision, but the rest — about 900 a year — walk out the door without any oversight. Ashford's bill would focus on the inmates in that group, who he said are at highest risk of reoffending, especially in the first couple of months.
Unlike other states, Nebraska would use probation officers rather than parole officers to supervise the re-entering inmates.
Parole officers monitor inmates who are released early from prison by the State Parole Board; probation officers typically supervise offenders who are not sentenced to prison but are ordered to perform community service, stay off drugs and meet other conditions as an alternative.
Deb Minardi, the state's deputy probation administrator, said her officers have some experience dealing with inmates through the Specialized Substance Abuse Supervision program. It has shown success in rehabilitating nonviolent drug offenders sentenced to prison via a strict supervised program of substance abuse treatment, work and counseling.
New “re-entry probation officers” would utilize rehabilitation and re-entry strategies proven to work in other states, Minardi said, and have much smaller caseloads of offenders to supervise, perhaps as few as 15 per officer.
“We're not asking for this,” she said. “But we will do it if the Legislature sees fit, and I'm confident we can do the job.”
Such prison reforms would not come cheap. Ashford estimated it could cost $25 million to hire the additional probation officers and to bulk up community programs such as mental health services. Heineman, though, said he believes it can be done for much less.
Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha said even a $25 million price tag would be a tremendous savings compared with the cost of a new prison and the additional millions needed annually to staff and run it.
State prison statistics indicate that about 60 percent of inmates serve less than three years before they are released back into society.
Said Mello: “We need to ensure that we help them become productive, taxpaying citizens.”