With 20/20 hindsight, it’s easy to see that it might not have been the best course of action for Nebraska corrections officials to allow Jermaine Lucas, a violent gang member, out on furlough. But after the fatal shooting of Lucas by Omaha police officers, there are some concerns to be considered.
Police said Lucas was shot lunging for a gun he dropped when confronted by officers responding to gunfire. The gang member had been convicted of crimes in 19 incidents and imprisoned 11 times for offenses ranging from receiving stolen property to being a felon in possession of a firearm. In addition, he had been charged as an accessory to a homicide in 2006, but those charges were dropped after prosecutors said witnesses refused to testify because they feared retaliation.
Furloughs are awarded to certain well-behaved inmates as a way to help them adjust to and prepare for the outside world and to encourage them to “go straight” after they are eventually released.
Just 580 of the 4,500 inmates in the state’s prisons are eligible for furloughs, which can allow them to form positive family or personal relationships, find housing and look for work. The corrections department has approved 1,632 furloughs since Jan. 1.
One obvious flaw in the system already is being corrected. Robert Houston, director of the Nebraska Department of Corrections, says the department now will inform law enforcement agencies whenever any prisoner is being released into their area. Before, local officials had to ask for notification if specific prisoners were being furloughed.
Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle has suggested that state prison officials should not only notify but also consult with local police before approving someone for the furlough program. The idea has some weight. Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer has already requested a list of Omaha inmates eligible for the program; he could easily use it to inform state officials about which prisoners might be a greater risk if released.
Houston said psychologists, psychiatrists and other corrections staff members extensively evaluate prisoners before they are furloughed, and only those considered least likely to commit another crime are allowed out. It’s hard to see how someone with Lucas’ record passed that test. Perhaps the decision-making process needs to be reviewed at a higher level.
It’s also good that the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee likely will review the furlough program next session. State Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, who chairs that panel, said he respects the furlough program’s goals but also is acutely aware of potential danger to the public.
Furloughs are a valuable tool in helping to rehabilitate qualified inmates, and in most instances they work well. But in the Lucas case, Ashford said, “public safety was in danger, and we can’t have all that.”
Perhaps the legislative committee can look at how other states handle their furlough programs and evaluate best practices in light of Nebraska’s needs.
It is impossible to guarantee that no furloughed inmate will ever commit a crime. But there are ways to tighten up the decision-making process.
When major failures occur, as happened with Lucas, it erodes public confidence in the system and raises questions about the way such decisions are made. Perhaps lawmakers can gather some worthwhile ideas from a study of the problem.
Public safety deserves as much.