LINCOLN — State prison officials knew Jermaine Lucas was a violent gang member who was suspected of participating in a slaying and other shootings.
But they also knew Lucas as a good prisoner who committed only one infraction while behind bars.
He was so well-behaved, in fact, that they allowed him 11 furloughs, and he had worked his way up to 48-hour stays with a family member on the outside.
Robert Houston, director of the Nebraska Department of Corrections, defended the system that released Lucas on furloughs, even after the 29-year-old was shot to death by police Sunday when officers said they saw him lunging for a gun.
Houston said that his staff members screen prisoners as well as they can but that no system is perfect.
“If we had reason to believe that this person was a public risk, we would have never sent him out on furlough to begin with,” Houston said.
But the head of the Omaha police union and the chairman of the Legislature's Judiciary Committee are questioning the furlough program, which is designed to prevent convicts from re-offending
State Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said Monday that he was assured by corrections officials that Lucas had gone through an extensive evaluation — as do all prisoners — before he was placed in the furlough program. Nonetheless, it appears that Lucas “fell through the cracks.”
“Hindsight is 20/20,” Ashford said. “He committed a very violent act. Public safety was in danger, and we can't have all that.”
Its highly likely that the Judiciary Committee, which oversees corrections, will review the furlough program in the coming session. But Ashford added that the program is a valuable tool in helping rehabilitate qualified inmates and said that, in the vast majority of cases, it works well.
Sgt. John Wells, president of the Omaha police union, said the shooting shows that there is a problem, but he's not sure what the solution will be.
“Clearly there is an issue because residents were put at risk — officers were put at risk — by releasing a known gang member who has a history of violent crime,” Wells said. “How many others are there out there, just like him, running around out there unsupervised?”
Omaha Police Officers Alvin Lugod and Joseph Koenig found Lucas about 2:30 a.m. Sunday after hearing several gunshots near 30th and Pratt Streets.
Lucas' associates drove away without him as police arrived, according to officials' accounts. He crouched, and a gun fell from his waistband.
Two officers ordered him to stop, but he lunged for the gun, they said.
They shot him several times.
Lucas died at the scene.
Houston said the department will make at least one change in light of the shooting.
Law enforcement agencies have been able to ask corrections officials to tell them if a specific prisoner was being released on furlough.
Now, he said, the department will let those agencies know any time a prisoner is released into their area, if the officials request such a notification.
Any inmate, except those sentenced to death or to life in prison, can be eligible for furlough release in Nebraska, though most don't qualify.
The furlough program is designed to make it easier for prisoners to re-acclimate to society.
Furloughs allow inmates to establish positive family or personal relationships, find housing and seek employment in the community, Houston said.. He said inmates who do those things are significantly less likely to commit another crime upon their release.
Furloughs help “enhance the transition back to the community for people who are going there anyhow,” Houston said. “Those are the ones we try to help establish legitimate relationships and help stabilize their behavior. It gives them at least a decent prospect of a successful life.”
Before they are released on furlough, inmates are screened. Only those deemed least likely to commit a crime are allowed out. Houston called the process an in-depth filtering by psychologists, psychiatrists and other prison staff.
Only about 580 of the state's 4,500 inmates are eligible to be on furlough.
Houston said he didn't know how many of those have been allowed a furlough.
Since Jan. 1, the department has allowed 1,632 furloughs.
Houston said putting eligible inmates in community corrections is cheaper than prison because less staffing is required to operate the minimum security community corrections centers in Lincoln and Omaha.
However, offenders on furlough remain under the custody of the department, so they retain their beds at the center. In other words, overcrowding does not motivate more furloughs, Houston said.
The furlough program in Iowa appears to work in a similar way to Nebraska's, except that the Iowa Board of Parole decides which inmates qualify for community corrections. In Nebraska, the decision is made by department staff members.
Teela Mickles, the chief executive officer of Compassion in Action, a program that helps inmates re-enter society, said work release programs and furloughs deter crime more often than they allow it to happen.
“It's unfortunate that the few will always overshadow the many,” she said.
Mickles often sees inmates have better success because of the family support and work experience that they gain through this and similar programs.
She said the exception is when offenders aren't committed to the process, and they go back to old habits or friends that they shouldn't.
“These people know who they're supposed to be with and who they're not supposed to be with,” Mickles said.
Lucas had a long arrest record. He had been convicted of crimes in 19 separate incidents and had been incarcerated 11 times.
In the latest case, Lucas was arrested in June 2010 for being a felon in possession of a firearm.
According to prosecutors, Omaha police officers had received a tip that members of the 29th Street Bloods had gathered near 30th Street and Arcadia Avenue.
When officers arrived, Lucas and two other men tried to drive away but backed into a police sport utility vehicle.
Lucas ran but was caught by officers. He had a loaded Colt .45 with a round in the chamber and a clip in his back pocket containing seven rounds. The serial number of the gun had been filed off, police said.
Lucas pleaded guilty later that year. He was scheduled to be released in May 2014.
In 2006, Lucas pleaded guilty to receiving stolen property worth more than $1,500, a felony.
He was also charged with being an accessory to a homicide that occurred that year, but prosecutors dropped the charges after, they said, witnesses refused to testify because they feared retaliation.
Wells, the union president, said allegations of violence in Lucas' past concern him. Wells would like to see this incident spur discussion about the criminal justice system as a whole, but he said he wasn't sure what form that would take.
“We need to sit down and re-examine how we're doing things,” he said.
Contact the writer: