LINCOLN — Three years ago, Gov. Dave Heineman signed a law proposed by his own Corrections Department that granted extra good time to prison inmates who behaved and attended rehabilitation programs in prison.
The goal then was to save money by speeding the release of more inmates.
On Monday, he changed course, saying the case of accused killer Nikko Jenkins requires laws that make it harder for murderers and other violent inmates to get good time reductions in their sentences.
The Republican governor said such offenders must “earn” reductions, rather than get them automatically, to better protect public safety.
“Circumstances do change,” Heineman said. “It's time to eliminate automatic 'good time' credit for the most violent inmates. The safety of our citizens should be priority one.”
Heineman's proposal, introduced Monday as Legislative Bill 832, sets up a test of wills in the Legislature over how best to respond to the case of Jenkins, a mentally troubled inmate who is charged with killing four Omahans just days after his July 30 release from prison.
Some, like Heineman, have said the Jenkins case illustrates a failure in the state's good time laws, which grant a one-day reduction in a prison sentence for every day spent in prison.
Good time can be taken away for assaults and other serious misbehavior, but that happens in less than 5 percent of misconduct cases, according to a World-Herald analysis.
Jenkins lost 18 months and 15 days of good time during a decade in prison, and got one month restored for good behavior, but he could have stayed behind bars another nine months if he'd received the maximum deductions.
Others, though, say that regardless of how much good time Jenkins lost, he was going to be released eventually. They say the failure was in neglecting Jenkins' serious mental problems and in not seeking his commitment to a mental hospital.
On Monday, State Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha repeated his pledge to block any attempt to change the state's good time law, saying it was a “knee-jerk reaction.”
“It's very easy to attack the good time law because it deflects attention away from the fact that there is not adequate mental health treatment or programs of any variety (in prison),” Chambers said.
The exchange comes on the heels of two reports released last week by the State Ombudsman's Office citing a lack of prison rehabilitation programs and treatment for segregated inmates like Jenkins.
One report, citing figures from the Department of Corrections, said that about 1 in seven prison inmates, or about 700 total, were on waiting lists for treatment programs for substance abuse, sex abuse and anger management.
The other report criticized the lack of treatment provided to Jenkins.
The governor, in his first public comments about the reports, blasted the State Ombudsman's Office. Heineman said it appeared that State Ombudsman Marshall Lux was trying to blame the prison system instead of Jenkins for the alleged rampage.
“Marshall Lux may want to be soft on crime … but I don't,” the governor said.
On Tuesday, Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha took issue with the governor's comments on the State Ombudsman's Office. On the floor of the Legislature, Lathrop reminded his colleagues that the ombudsman investigates serious issue on behalf of the legislative branch.
"That office is not there to engage in politics," Lathrop said. "They're there to investigate."
Sens. Chambers, Brad Ashford and Danielle Conrad expressed similar sentiments about the governor's criticism of the ombudsman.
The ombudsman's report said Jenkins told prison officials several times that he planned a violent, murderous rampage upon his release and that he took commands from an Egyptian god. Lux said state prison officials should have sought a mental health commitment for Jenkins, thus keeping him away from society. But prison doctors diagnosed Jenkins with a behavior disorder that is not a treatable mental illness.
If Nebraska adopted an earned time law, it would join 31 other states with similar laws, according to Attorney General Jon Bruning, who helped draft the proposal.
The proposed legislation would apply to inmates who commit crimes including murder, manslaughter, first-degree assault, kidnapping, sexual assault, robbery, escape, assault of an officer, assault by a confined person, use of a deadly weapon to commit a felony and similar offenses.
LB 832 would not apply to current prison inmates, but about half of the state's current 4,800 prison inmates have committed violent crimes that would qualify, he said.
Under the proposal, an inmate could earn 15 days of good time a month for good behavior, and another 15 days of good time a month for following a personalized plan approved by the department.
Heineman said he didn't think an earned time law would increase prison overcrowding. Nebraska prisons now hold about 1,700 more inmates than their design capacity.
The state had an earned time law prior to 1992. But Chambers said it led to favoritism and discrimination when prison officials decided who got sentence reductions.
Omaha Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh, who introduced the governor's bill, said he faces “some heavy lifting” to get it passed.
Besides Chambers, Omaha Sen. Brad Ashford, who heads the legislative committee that must advance any good time proposals, has said he thinks it's unnecessary.
Ashford has said Heineman has already done enough by getting a rule changed to allow the Department of Corrections to take away twice as much good time as a punishment for serious offenses. For instance, an assault can now result in the loss of up to two years of good time, instead of one.
Ashford said the governor's proposal will lengthen prison sentences, and while that's “politically popular,” it doesn't address the more pressing problems of prison overcrowding and a lack of alternatives to expensive incarceration.
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