Nebraska Lawmakers Consider Prison Reform Reports

LINCOLN, Neb. — A report released earlier this month by the Platte Institute for Economic Research highlights how Nebraska could ease prison crowding by reforming how and when it releases inmates and lifting the barriers that make it harder for them to find jobs. The recommendations come at a time when lawmakers are looking at ways to reduce crowding without building a new prison.

Nebraska’s prison population has grown despite a drop in violent crime and property-related offenses, such as burglary and theft. The statewide prison population was 5,221 inmates as of December, more than 59 percent higher than its design capacity. Without new prison beds, the overcrowding is expected to worsen, which means that Nebraska could face expensive lawsuits alleging that conditions are cruel and inhumane for the offenders subjected to them, the report stated.

In fact, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Nebraska threatened to sue the state if Nebraska policymakers fail to act, reported the Kearney Hub. In favor of the Platte Institute report, the ACLU endorsed its recommendations on Feb. 10. The report also won support from the Council of State Governments Justice Center, a national group that has worked closely with Nebraska lawmakers to address crowding.

The Platte Institute suggests an incentive system for probationers who find jobs, earn a professional license or go back to school. It also advises more community supervision of inmates who are released and more in-depth reviews of legislation that could affect the criminal justice system. Uncooperative prisoners who are confined and then released with no supervision are more likely to reoffend, and Nebraska’s 2013 max-out rate of nearly 35 percent is dangerously high — the national average is 21.5 percent, according to the report.

The report also recommends a liability shield for employers who hire reformed offenders and sealing the records of former inmates who changed their lives long ago. For example, some ex-offenders in Texas were trained to work as barbers in prison, but weren’t able to get the state license needed to cut hair upon release, reported the Kearney Hub.

A similar plan by the Council of State Governments Justice Center predicted that the prison alternatives would cost the state an estimated $32.8 million over five years, and could reduce the population by 10 percent. With crowding eased, the plan said Nebraska wouldn’t have to spend $261 million on prison construction and $45 million in operational costs in that time span.