Published Wednesday, February 12, 2014 at 1:00 am / Updated at 4:14 pm
nikko jenkins INQUIRY
World-Herald editorial: Lawmakers need answers

Nebraska is not Washington, D.C. The state’s nonpartisan political tradition focuses on solving problems together instead of scoring points through political theater.

That’s why the Legislature, unlike Congress, tends to get results when it investigates matters independently. Nebraska governors tend to respond to constructive legislative prodding.

Recent history of these inquiries offers positive examples in child welfare reform and changes at the Beatrice State Developmental Center for the developmentally disabled.

In both cases, longstanding public concerns persisted. The Legislature chose to investigate, aired the problems publicly, then worked with Gov. Dave Heineman and his department leaders to address shortcomings senators identified.

That’s how good government should work. Voters hope an administration they elect won’t need legislative oversight, yet they maintain that tool for the times when it is required.

This is one of those times.

Nebraska prison officials made decisions about how to handle a dangerous inmate and, shortly after his release, four people were dead. The question of whether state decisions might have contributed to those deaths should be enough to call for an independent examination of what happened.

Nebraskans deserve to know what occurred while murder suspect Nikko Jenkins was behind bars and how he got out of prison early.

They want to avoid it happening again.

So the Legislature is right to exert itself independently with Legislative Resolution 424 by Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha.

LR 424 calls for a special legislative investigation into Jenkins’ incarceration and release, including the role of prison crowding, prisoner isolation, good-time laws, mental health treatment, rehabilitation and policies on preparing inmates for life outside of prison.

Here is a quick refresher from a recent State Ombudsman’s Office report on the Jenkins case:

While he was behind bars, state prison officials deemed Jenkins so dangerous that they kept him apart from other prisoners.

Jenkins did not receive adequate mental health care in prison, nor did officials pursue a mental health commitment for him as he approached his release date.

Because of a lack of administrative follow- through, Jenkins still got out early under Nebraska’s automatic “good-time” law. The state took away only 17 months of his good time, despite actions that included making a knife out of a toilet brush and attacking a guard.

Jenkins’ case has added fuel to serious talks about prison reforms and a renewed emphasis on treatment and rehabilitation. Those discussions are welcome and should not wait.

The ombudsman’s office reports that Nebraska’s prisons have slid into the practice of warehousing dangerous inmates instead of helping prepare them to return to society. That is not a good thing for public safety, let alone the inmates.

LR 424, which has been sent to the full Legislature for consideration, has the potential to produce answers that will inform future debates and help the state improve its prisons.

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