LINCOLN — If violent criminals were fitted with GPS devices after leaving prison, it would help Omaha reduce shootings and killings, city officials told a legislative panel Thursday.
The uncle of Andrea Kruger, who was gunned down in August, was even more explicit.
A GPS device on the ankle of her alleged killer, Nikko Jenkins, might have saved her life, said Chuck Freyermuth of Omaha.
Jenkins is charged with killing Kruger and three others in August. He had been released from prison July 30.
“If Jenkins had been fitted with a GPS device, in all likelihood he would have been deterred or caught after the first two murders,” Freyermuth said. “I doubt he would have committed any murders in the first place.”
The uncle, a retired federal law enforcement agent, was among several people who testified in favor of a pair of bills designed to better protect public safety, reduce spending on low-risk, nonviolent offenders and avoid additional prison construction.
A broad spectrum of groups supported the bills, from the liberal Nebraska Appleseed Center to the conservative Platte Institute, though there were concerns about whether state funding would be adequate to create sufficient rehabilitation, mental health and job-skills programs.
The bills, introduced by State Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, are an attempt to address the chronic overcrowding of state prisons and a series of deadly incidents involving inmates on work release, furlough or after completing their sentences.
Under Legislative Bill 907, inmates who had committed violent crimes could be required by judges to undergo a one- to three-year period of supervised release as they re-enter society.
The supervision would include tracking via global positioning system devices for the first 90 days after an inmate leaves prison.
Another measure (LB 999) creates a “Reentry Programming Board” of criminal justice officials to adopt economical strategies to reduce repeat crimes and expand both prison-based and community rehabilitation programs.
Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer said supervised release cannot totally replace prison, but tracking inmates during their first 90 days of release should help deter violent crime in the city, which had 41 homicides last year and about 200 shootings. GPS tracking, he said, would help police determine whether a recently released inmate was at a specific crime scene and help overcome the problem of witnesses reluctant to come forward.
“What has plagued our city is repeat violent offenders who want to commit crimes over and over again,” he said.
Schmaderer and Omaha City Councilwoman Aimee Melton, a former prosecutor and defense attorney, asked that supervised release be expanded to include not only those convicted of murder, rape and serious assaults, but also those convicted of using a firearm to commit a felony or felons in possession of firearms.
Melton suggested that judges be allowed to extend the term of GPS monitoring past 90 days.
The legislation would focus on inmates who are now leaving prison without any supervision by parole officers or courts, which is about 49 percent of all inmates.
State prisons now hold about 1,700 more inmates than their design capacity, or about 53 percent over capacity. The cost of building one new prison has been estimated at upward of $130 million, which state officials, including the governor, say they want to avoid.
Advocates for the bills said alternatives to prison will cost much less and reduce prison costs in the future. Ashford said he is working to get the cost of the bills to about $20 million a year.
The public hearing before the Legislature's Judiciary Committee included a stern warning from a lawyer representing the ACLU, which has sued states on the grounds that overcrowded prisons constitute “cruel and unusual punishment” because of increased violence and lack of health care.
California lost such a lawsuit, forcing it to release thousands of inmates early.
“We do take on these cases,” said Alan Peterson of ACLU Nebraska. “And we've got hundreds of complaints from inmates (in Nebraska) asking us to take on this one.”
A trio of county attorneys testified against the bills.
Lancaster County Attorney Joe Kelly said he was concerned that the bills would shift costs to county jails and might result in the early release of some violent inmates. He called it an “incomplete” approach to reducing prison overcrowding.
Ashford said the concerns could be worked out.
“We want to make your job easier, not harder,” he told Kelly. “What we want to do is rectify a very broken prison system.”