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LINCOLN — If state officials furloughed a known gang member with an extensive criminal record, what other kinds of prisoners could get out on unsupervised release?
The short answer: just about any.
Arsonists, robbers, child molesters, rapists and even killers have the potential to earn furloughs in Nebraska as their sentences draw to an end. In fact, any inmate not on death row or serving a life sentence for first-degree murder could qualify.
Furloughs can improve public safety by helping inmates reform their lives and avoid future crimes, prison officials say, so they don't automatically shut the door on any offender who is going to be eventually released.
In fact, the department considers inmates with violent histories most in need of the structured transition to freedom that furloughs help provide, said Bob Houston, director of the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services.
“You'd think you'd want to put the easy cases out there and keep the hard cases inside,” Houston said. “If we're going to serve public safety in Nebraska, we need to transition everyone we can.”
Yet the furlough program was practically unknown to the public it is intended to protect until furloughed prisoner Jermaine Lucas died two weeks ago.
The 29-year-old Omaha man was shot and killed Sept. 16 by Omaha police officers who were responding to an apparent gang shootout near 30th and Pratt Streets. Police say officers fired after Lucas refused their order to stop and he reached for a gun that had fallen from his waistband moments earlier.
Lucas was serving a five- to eight-year sentence for being a felon in possession of a gun and was on a two-day furlough when he was killed. He was scheduled for release from prison in 2014.
But Lucas also had a long rap sheet, serving behind bars 11 times. In 2006 he was charged with being an accessory to murder, but the charge was dropped after witnesses who feared retaliation refused to testify, prosecutors said.
Defenders of Nebraska's furlough program have said the Lucas case is a rare exception for a rehabilitation process that works reliably and safely with the vast majority of inmates. Or, as Gov. Dave Heineman has suggested, it's easy to be a Monday morning quarterback while holding up Lucas as an example of a problem.
Houston has said repeatedly that if corrections officials had known Lucas was going to violate his furlough requirements, he would still be alive today — in prison.
Instead, Lucas was considered a low risk because he had no serious disciplinary infractions while in prison, and he fully cooperated with a rehabilitation plan designed by his case worker and other corrections professionals.
Yet the Lucas case has already prompted changes that are designed to reduce the number of overnight furloughs and cut down on the free time inmates have on release. The shooting also has invited scrutiny and questions by state lawmakers, Omaha Mayor Jim Suttle and Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer.
Many still wonder how someone like Lucas could have been a candidate for furlough.
“You don't have to release people on furlough,” said Lincoln Public Safety Director Tom Casady, a former police chief and sheriff. “I say that you have to make some kind of informed decision about what risk this person presents and whether the social benefit of getting him acclimated outside the correctional institution is worth it.”
Prison professionals start weighing risk the moment an inmate walks through the steel doors, Houston said. It's called a classification process, and it's done by an inmate's case worker, social workers and psychologists. The classification determines what level of security the inmate needs, but it also provides a plan to help him work his way to lower levels of supervision over time.
The goal is to place the inmate in the least-restrictive setting that still protects the public, Houston said. As prisoners get within three years of release they can become eligible for placement at a community correctional center in Omaha or Lincoln. Once there, they can earn furlough privileges.
While the inmate's criminal history is a factor in deciding whether to grant a furlough, it counts less than behavior in prison, Houston said. Those who follow rules, avoid trouble and genuinely participate in drug rehab, sex offender treatment, GED classes or other requirements are the ones who earn releases.
Inmates can use furloughs to look for work, seek housing or participate in church activities, but their primary purpose is to reconnect with family members. An ex-con without family support won't be an ex-con for long, Houston said.
The Department of Correctional Services will provide notification about inmate furloughs to any law enforcement agency that requests it, Houston said. Victims also can be alerted when an offender is to be released on furlough.
The department, however, declined a formal open records request by The World-Herald for a list of all inmates currently approved for furloughs. Furlough information is part of an inmate's individual file, which is confidential under state law, said an attorney for the department.
Citing the same law, the department also withheld the dates of 10 prior furloughs granted to Lucas.
While on furlough, the inmate has every incentive to avoid trouble. Yet a small percentage still manage to find it, Houston said.
“If I want to take the risk out of it, we would keep everybody in prison until the last possible day,” he said. “But we would be really short-changing the safety of Nebraskans by doing that.”
A 1970s study of furloughed inmates in Massachusetts found they were less likely to return to prison a year after their release than those inmates who never participated in furlough.
Ironically, the study involved the same state that produced Willie Horton, an inmate who raped a woman and stabbed her boyfriend after being released for a weekend furlough. The case unleashed a flood of criticism against Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis during his 1988 Democratic presidential bid.
Nebraska officials said they didn't have a way to readily determine the number of inmates who violate rules or break laws while on furlough.
They have granted about 1,630 furloughs so far this year. Between 400 and 500 inmates have accounted for those furloughs, said Dawn-Renee Smith, spokeswoman for corrections.
While no crime rate data for inmates on furlough in Nebraska was available, corrections officials in Vermont did an analysis in 1998 and found 11 percent of its 1,320 furloughed offenders committed crimes during their releases.
Many states have similar programs, said Ann Jacobs, director of the Prisoner Reentry Institute at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City.
“I don't think that Nebraska is an outlier,” she said.
Of the states that surround Nebraska, only Iowa has a furlough program that is comparable. Kansas and Missouri provide no prisoner furloughs; South Dakota, Wyoming and Colorado mostly restrict releases to funerals.
Jesse Jannetta, a senior research associate at the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute, said helping prisoners make a transition to freedom can clearly benefit the greater good.
“The vast, vast, vast majority of people who are sent to prison are going to be released into the community,” Jannetta said.
“So the question is ‘What can the correctional community do to facilitate that re-entry in a way that's going to protect the public safety?'”
World-Herald staff writers Roseann Moring and Christine Scalora contributed to this report.
Contact the writer: 402-473-9587, firstname.lastname@example.org
Surrounding states use furloughs sparingly, if at all
Iowa: Allows furloughs for some offenders. State Board of Parole decides who is eligible, taking into consideration the inmate's crime, criminal history and behavior in prison.
South Dakota: Furloughs used primarily for bedside visits and funerals. Some inmates on work release are also allowed to be out for a job search.
Wyoming: Allows furloughs for ill family members and funerals. A program similar to Nebraska's for reuniting family members has not been used in recent years, said spokesman Tim Lockwood.
Colorado: Allows inmates to be escorted to a family member's funeral in rare cases.
Kansas: No furlough program
Missouri: No furlough program