LINCOLN — Until Omaha police killed Jermaine Lucas nearly three months ago, they thought he was locked up on a gun charge instead of out on a weekend furlough.
Two of Omaha’s top law enforcement officials on Thursday urged state lawmakers to reduce the chances of another Lucas case.
Omaha Police Chief Todd Schmaderer asked members of the Judiciary Committee to ban furloughs for inmates convicted of felony firearms offenses. Schmaderer even presented a drafted bill during a meeting at the State Capitol to discuss the furlough program.
Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine said that under state law, judges must give minimum prison terms for offenses such as sexual assault on a child, use of a deadly weapon to commit a felony and being a habitual criminal. It makes no sense to grant furloughs to such inmates before they serve their minimums, he told the committee.
“That would be a good starting point,” Kleine said.
Death row inmates and killers serving life terms currently are about the only prisoners ineligible for furloughs. Most others can earn the privilege as their release dates near by demonstrating good behavior and following rehabilitation plans.
Bob Houston, director of the State Department of Correctional Services, said furloughs, work release and other methods used to transition prison inmates back to their communities help improve public safety by reducing reoffend rates.
Houston told committee members that perhaps law enforcement concerns could be addressed by ending overnight furloughs for targeted inmates. But he urged the panel to keep such offenders eligible for day passes as a part of their transitions back to society.
“Inmates can build strong relationships with family, service providers and employers on passes and not have to stay overnight,” he said.
Omaha Sen. Brad Ashford, committee chairman, said some type of furlough-related legislation will be considered after the Legislature convenes Jan. 9.
Schmaderer told the committee that Lucas may have exploited the furlough program to hide his criminal activities.
The 29-year-old Omaha man with an extensive criminal history was on his 11th furlough when he was killed Sept. 16.
Early that morning, Omaha police responded to a report of gunshots at a nightclub near 30th and Pratt Streets.
Two officers shot Lucas, saying he ignored orders and lunged for a handgun that had fallen from his waistband.
In the prior weeks, Lucas’ name surfaced as a possible suspect in other violent crimes in Omaha, Schmaderer said, although he declined to provide specifics. Police ruled him out, however, because the information they had said he was still in prison.
The police chief also said the driver of a car that Lucas tried to escape in before the shooting may have been a furloughed inmate as well.
“It would not be out of the question this would be a strategic plan by the inmates to get out on furlough and then go back to prison, where they would be safe,” he said.
In addition, Omaha had experienced high levels of gang violence for several weekends before Lucas’ death, Schmaderer said. The violence subsided after Sept. 16.
After the hearing, the county attorney said there have been no additional arrests or charges in the Lucas case. The information about the driver may be just a rumor, he said.
The Lucas shooting has already prompted changes to the furlough program, Houston said. For example, the department formerly allowed eligible inmates to earn overnight furloughs within three years of projected release.
Since Nov. 1, violent offenders have to be within a year of release before earning an overnight release.
The department is also working with the Nebraska Crime Commission to make furlough data on inmates available to law officers in real time. It’s not yet clear when such a system will be working.
In the meantime, the department is providing the names of all furloughed inmates in the jurisdictions of any departments requesting a weekly listing. So far, departments in Omaha, La Vista and Lincoln, along with the Nebraska State Patrol, have requested the notices.
Schmaderer said Omaha’s weekly list contains up to 75 names. Investigators flag names of inmates they think represent threats to public safety, and corrections officials revoke their furlough privileges.
The arrangement seems to be working well, but it’s based on an agreement between the two departments.
Schmaderer said he would like to see the arrangement written into law, so it remains in place long term.
Corrections officials said Thursday that they were unsure how many of the state’s 4,600 inmates would be affected by the proposals suggested by the county attorney and police chief.
Omaha Sen. Brenda Council said the purpose of furloughs is to help offenders stay out of trouble after leaving prison.
“My fear,” she said, “is when you give people no hope of being able to transition back, you do more harm than good.”
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