Nebraska Lawmakers Move Bills to Ease Prison Crowding

LINCOLN, Neb. — Just months after Fairfax, Va.-based Dewberry Architects revealed a master plan for construction work at Nebraska correctional facilities, state lawmakers passed Legislative Bills (LB) 907 and 999 on April 8 in the second of three rounds of consideration. The bills are written to reduce Nebraska’s prison population by increasing alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders and avoiding the multi¬million-dollar cost of building a new prison.

LB 907 would provide $14.4 million in funding for vocational and life skills programs within prisons, would expand a successful alternative to prison for drug offenders and would expand services for mentally ill inmates and those newly released. The bill also creates a prison reform task force to work with the Council of State Governments (CSG), who has successfully helped other states with prison reform. Finally, it would appropriate funding to UNO to continue their work with CSG. LB 999 would appropriate $200 million in funding to study the feasibility of adding more behavioral health treatment beds.

While the bills were approved, some state senators hesitated over a provision that would ban public employers from asking for a job applicant’s criminal history on an initial job application. The provision was written in hopes that it would give former inmates a better chance of finding work, reported the Omaha World Herald, encouraging employers to look at a former inmate’s qualifications before their criminal records.

Under LB 907, law enforcement agencies could continue asking about any criminal history, and an amendment added to the bill would allow schools to ask if applicants have been convicted of sexual or physical abuse. Schools can still do background checks to keep children safe.

Nebraska has been grappling with a steadily increasing prison population for several years. As of Jan. 31, the state’s correctional system housed nearly 5,000 inmates, more than 150 percent of its intended capacity. In response, the state hired Dewberry Archictects in early 2013 to examine the state’s correctional trends and long-term construction needs. The firm’s newly released master plan proposes a 300-bed expansion to an existing Omaha facility designed for minimum-security and work release inmates, as well as a 240-bed addition to the Diagnostic and Evaluation Center in Lincoln which houses elderly and mentally ill inmates. A 250-bed addition was also proposed for the Lincoln-based Community Corrections Center, as well as 100-bed expansions at two additional Lincoln facilities. The new master plan also recommended expanding food service capacity, dining facilities and other programs.

Though Dewberry did not provide an estimate for proposed projects, lawmakers have previously put the state’s potential investment at $130 million. After the plan’s unveiling, Gov. Dave Heineman, who thus far has opposed building new prisons, announced that no construction will take place until the state has time to consider cheaper alternatives.