LINCOLN — Nebraska lawmakers may spare a former Hastings Regional Center building from the wrecking ball to help ease prison overcrowding.
Members of the Judiciary Committee talked Wednesday about potentially using the building to house prisoners undergoing mental health and substance abuse treatment.
The idea was among several considered during a wide-ranging discussion of corrections issues.
State Sen. Les Seiler of Hastings said the building would need renovation but could house up to 250 inmates. The renovation would have to include adding security to keep prisoners from walking away.
The building is one of several on the former state psychiatric hospital grounds that had been slated for demolition. A substance abuse treatment program for juvenile offenders occupies one building on the grounds.
Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, the committee chairman, said the Hastings building could be part of a larger plan for addressing prison overcrowding. That plan needs to have short-, medium- and long-term steps.
Using the Hastings building would be a shorter-term step that could reduce the number of people in prisons and provide space to expand much-needed programming.
As many as 39 percent of Nebraska's prisoners have mental health problems, Ashford said.
Reports issued earlier this year said prisoners lack adequate access to mental health and substance abuse therapy, among other programs.
Such programs often are required before prisoners can get parole, and the shortage of available programs adds to overcrowding by delaying parole.
Other short-term steps considered Wednesday included housing prison inmates in county jails and using a building in Lincoln's Air Park area for a new re-entry program.
The re-entry program would help prisoners who are slated for release make the transition back into community living. It would be new to the state.
Ashford estimated that the Hastings building, county jails and the Air Park building could accommodate nearly 1,000 inmates.
That would ease prison overcrowding but not bring inmate numbers down enough, he said. The prison population would have to drop by about 1,500 inmates to be at a manageable level.
State officials reported the prison population at 154 percent of capacity as of Jan. 31.
The overcrowding has raised concerns that Nebraska might be forced by a federal court to release inmates, as has happened in California.
For the longer term, the Legislature, judicial branch and Gov. Dave Heineman have teamed up to ask the Council of State Governments to study the state's prison problems and develop an action plan.
The council has done similar work with 18 other states, helping them cut millions of dollars in corrections spending and enhance public safety by changing how they handle criminals.
CSG officials did a preliminary study of the Nebraska system last fall and concluded that the state's prison overcrowding is among the worst in the nation.
The Judiciary Committee made no decisions Wednesday about how they will proceed on corrections issues.
The committee has named Legislative Bill 907 as one of its priorities for the year. The bill as introduced would make several changes in corrections. Ashford said he is working on amendments to the measure.