At some point during Jermaine Lucas' latest two-year prison stint, the Omaha Police Department received a tip: Lucas had been involved in a violent crime.
Investigators discounted the tip, Chief Todd Schmaderer said Friday, because they thought Lucas was safely in prison.
“Obviously, that's a good alibi,” Schmaderer said.
The chief declined to specify what the violent crime was, saying that “might spark something in the community that I don't want to happen.”
Lucas, a gang member and felon, had actually been released from prison on furlough several times.
Omaha police learned that last month when they encountered Lucas in the middle of a gunfight outside Club Seville near 30th and Pratt Streets, a widely known hangout for members of the 29th Street Bloods.
The night ended, police said, with two officers fatally shooting Lucas as he reached for a gun.
Now police are investigating whether Lucas was involved in a violent crime during a previous furlough.
After the Sept. 16 shooting of Lucas, Mayor Jim Suttle, the president of the Omaha police union and others raised questions about the furlough program.
Since then, Robert Houston, director of the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, has evaluated what works and what doesn't, with help from Schmaderer.
“I'm responsible for the safety of all Nebraska,” Houston said. “The residents of 30th and Pratt have the same right to be protected as any neighborhood or community in the state of Nebraska, and we're proceeding with that mindset as we make adjustments in how we do re-entry.”
After a few weeks of discussions, Houston and Schmaderer decided they needed a better flow of information between the Corrections Department and law enforcement agencies.
“This is not a relationship issue,” Houston said. “This is a communication issue.”
If communication had been better, they said, police could have alerted corrections about the allegation against Lucas. The authorities would have brought Lucas back to prison while the matter was investigated, and he would probably be alive today.
Now the state will provide law enforcement agencies with a list of all inmates who are approved for a furlough in their area each week, Houston said.
Eventually, law enforcement agencies around the state will be able to access that information by computer, he said.
Houston said prison officials will listen to any concerns police have about the people being released.
Police will be able to keep track of potentially dangerous inmates on furlough, though Schmaderer noted that that's primarily the responsibility of corrections.
To that end, Houston said, the Corrections Department will more often use GPS monitoring, such as ankle bracelets, to keep track of furloughed prisoners.
Corrections also has changed how furloughs are structured. Before, an inmate would earn a certain amount of time away from a community corrections center and try to fill it with positive activities.
Now inmates will “start at zero” and have to show how their agenda items will help them with re-entry.
Houston said programs such as furloughs, work release and parole help prisoners learn how to behave in society in a more structured environment.
“They don't know how to use their leisure time,” Houston said.
He said those programs contribute to Nebraska's low recidivism rate — 26 percent, compared with the national average of 33 percent.
Suttle spokeswoman Aida Amoura said the mayor is happy with the changes Houston and Schmaderer have made.
“This is the way things should work,” she said.
State Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha sees the Lucas shooting as an opportunity to take a big-picture look at the state's prison system and its re-entry programs.
“This is such an important issue,” said Ashford, chairman of the Legislature's Judiciary Committee.
He has scheduled a December committee hearing to talk about the issue.
“We're really going to drill down on this,” he said.
The Lincoln Police Department gets notification for inmates released under a different furlough program that applies only to nonviolent offenders.
The Lincoln police chief has been talking to the Corrections Department about the furlough program Lucas was released under, said Tom Casady, Lincoln public safety director.
But Lincoln police have not yet worked out how to use the information, because the furloughs are for much shorter periods.
Casady said that while he comes at the issue from a law-and-order perspective, he understands the concept of furloughs and their potential value.
“I generally think it's a good principle to get prisoners acclimated,” he said. “But some you hold onto until the absolute end of your authority.”
World-Herald staff writer Joe Duggan contributed to this report.
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