The latest fallout from a Nebraska report exposing overcrowded prisons and underfunded rehabilitative programs: a delay in the sentencing in a major murder case.
Douglas County District Judge Russell Bowie granted a delay Wednesday so he could receive an evaluation and report on what prison programs are available to treat Justin Lenz, 18, who strangled his one-time girlfriend, Melanie Koontz, in 2012.
Lenz's attorney, Douglas County Public Defender Tom Riley, had requested the delay after noting a state ombudsman's report detailed in The World-Herald on Sunday.
The report — issued by State Ombudsman Marshall Lux in the wake of the case of alleged serial killer Nikko Jenkins — indicates that only about 13 percent of prison inmates were enrolled in anger management, substance abuse and sex offender treatment.
The report also said about 1 in 7 inmates, or 708, were on waiting lists for treatment. Some inmates were blocked from being paroled because they couldn't get into required rehab.
Too often, Riley said, judges look at sentencing as just imposing a number — not at requiring the state to rehabilitate prisoners.
Riley noted that state law — and a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision — requires Bowie to give an “individualized sentence” for teenagers such as Lenz.
Lenz, who was 16 at the time of the slaying, told friends that he strangled Koontz, also 16, because he didn't like the choices she was making.
Riley questioned how the judge could know what an appropriate sentence is when he has no clue whether Lenz will receive programming or what that programming will be.
Corrections officials said the report centered only on formal treatment and didn't include the full array of routine work done with inmates, such as services with social workers, expanded mental health treatment and in-prison drug treatment.
“This court (will impose) a number — which in this case is going to be a lengthy sentence,” Riley said. “But we don't know what they're going to do down there (in prison), what they can do or what they should be doing.”
Bowie initially was skeptical of granting the delay. The judge noted that he had lengthy psychological reports and evaluations on Lenz. However, the judge ultimately decided that it would do no harm, other than inconveniencing the victim's family.
Before he delayed the sentencing, the judge did question whether he had the authority to tell corrections officials how to treat Lenz.
Riley said the judge does have that authority. He noted that, historically, courts have stepped in to order changes to overcrowded and underfunded prisons.
Riley lamented that Gov. Dave Heineman was talking “in the paper this morning” about using a state surplus to provide tax relief, not to expand rehabilitative programs in prison.
“Unless you've been living under a rock the last two weeks, it's quite apparent there is a paucity and an ambivalence on the part of state government concerning rehabilitative programs for prisoners.” Riley said. “We have a prison that they keep underfunding and ignoring because these are the bad guys — who cares?”
Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine objected to the postponement and questioned what it would accomplish.
Kleine said he doesn't anticipate that other judges will grant similar requests, calling it nothing more than a “delay tactic.” Koontz's mother, Michelle, also blasted the delay.
“It's very frustrating,” Michelle Koontz said. “We just want to have this part over so we can try to move on.”