LINCOLN — With overcrowding of Nebraska prisons rising to record levels, state officials are pledging a closer look at lower-cost alternatives to locking people behind bars.
A meeting next month including Gov. Dave Heineman will look at options to avoid spending $120 million to $150 million on a new state prison.
“We do not have the money to spend on a new prison,” said State Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, chairman of the Legislature's Judiciary Committee.
State Corrections Director Bob Houston said his agency is drawing up a new master plan that seeks alternatives at the “lowest cost possible” while protecting public safety.
Ashford called prison overcrowding a “real crisis” that demands a look at increased community treatment for nonviolent offenders — as well as reforming criminal sentences, such as mandatory minimum sentences, that are one of the drivers in the increased prison population.
“We've taken discretion away from judges in order to be tough on crime,” Ashford said. “There's no data showing that the public is any safer for it.”
As of June 30, 4,796 inmates were housed in the nine major state prison facilities. They are designed to hold 3,175.
The prison population has risen steadily in recent years despite efforts to speed up parole for nonviolent offenders. Parolees are at record numbers — 1,347 as of June 30 — but ever-rising admissions of new inmates are wiping out any progress.
State and prison officials say there are multiple reasons for the increase, including longer prison sentences passed by state lawmakers, and court rulings that require inmates to serve multiple sentences consecutively instead of concurrently, thus lengthening their time behind bars.
The current prison population amounts to 151 percent of capacity, well above the 140 percent threshold that triggers a report to the governor, who can declare an emergency. The 140 percent benchmark also can be used by federal judges to order a state to build new prison cells.
A spokeswoman for Heineman said the governor has chosen not to declare an overcrowding emergency based on assurances from Houston that Corrections can manage the deluge of inmates.
Prison population management includes having dozens of inmates sleep on plastic mats on the floor in day rooms, with their belongings stored in paper bags, at the Diagnostic and Evaluation Center in Lincoln — the most overcrowded state facility.
That building, designed to hold 160 prisoners for short periods before they are assigned to other prisons or work-release programs, was housing more than three times its capacity recently, 547.
Four other state prisons — community corrections facilities in Omaha and Lincoln, the State Penitentiary in Lincoln and the Omaha Correctional Center — are above 170 percent of capacity.
Houston acknowledged that was a “difficult situation” and “not an ideal,” but he emphasized that safety in state prisons has been maintained despite the overcrowding.
He said focusing on the worst overcrowding at the Diagnostic and Evaluation Center was preferable to doing it at long-term, high-security facilities such as the State Penitentiary in Lincoln or the prison in Tecumseh.
Houston said additional steps are being taken to ease the overcrowding, including double-bunking 50 to 100 cells in other state facilities to ease the overcrowding at the Diagnostic and Evaluation Center; sending more inmates to the State Work Ethic Camp in McCook; and working with the State Parole Board to prepare more inmates for release.
The agency also used a $5 million special budget allocation from the Legislature in December to reopen a housing unit at the Omaha Correctional Center that closed in 2011, and to refill many of the 70 corrections officer positions eliminated in prior budget cuts.
“I think the combination of those things will carry us into the future,” Houston said.
He said he had not yet decided if he would include a request for a new prison in his department's new master plan, due at the end of the year. Houston said he is looking at alternatives, such as more use of community corrections, increased parole or expansion of current prisons.
The last time the state built a prison was in 2001, when the 960-bed prison in Tecumseh opened at a cost of $74 million. Planning for the prison began after the prison population passed 140 percent of capacity. It grew to nearly 170 percent before Tecumseh opened, then dropped back to 116 percent.
Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha, chairman of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee, said he and his colleagues are concerned about overcrowding, particularly its ramifications for the state budget.
He said he is working with Ashford and others to find alternatives to building another prison.
Nationally, it's a mixed bag when it comes to prison overcrowding, according to a specialist who tracks corrections and sentencing issues.
Overall, state prison populations across the nation have dropped slightly for the past three years, though about half the states are seeing increases in inmate counts and struggling with overcrowding, said Alison Lawrence of the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Lawrence said a handful of states, including Texas, Colorado and South Carolina, have succeeded in reducing prison populations by diverting more drug offenders into treatment programs instead of prison, and making other sentencing reforms.
“Justice reinvestment” is a new buzz term in the corrections community, she said.
That includes more keenly analyzing the impact on prison populations of new laws that increase prison sentences, and whether they will actually improve public safety, Lawrence said.
The alternatives are much cheaper. For instance, it now costs the state $36,496 a year to house a prisoner at Tecumseh — about 10 times more than supervising an inmate on parole in the community.
Mel Beckman, who tracks state prison matters in the newsletter Nebraska Criminal Justice Review, said he hears some complaints from inmates about overcrowding. But he hears more complaints about slow movement in paroling eligible inmates and about restrictions on prison activities because of security concerns.
Beckman said the additional security steps have to have some relationship with overcrowding. Houston, the prison director, rejected that, saying it had to do with increased gang problems.
Ashford said he's optimistic that reforms can be launched to cut into prison overcrowding, just as the Legislature was able to reform the juvenile justice system this year with a goal of keeping more youngsters out of prison.
Now, he said, the state needs to focus on increasing the use of lower-cost probation and parole and sentencing alternatives for nonviolent offenders that don't involve time behind bars.
A group that needs special attention are inmates under age 25, Ashford said, because they commit most of the violent crimes and are more likely to reoffend if not rehabilitated.
He said it probably will take more money, and redirecting spending from traditional prison programs, to improve programs to better prepare inmates for life outside prison walls.
“We're incarcerating people way beyond what is necessary for public safety,” Ashford said. “We have to develop a new strategy.”
Populations at state prisons as of June 30
|Prison||Capacity||Population||% of capacity|
|Community Corrections Center-Lincoln||200||350||175%|
|Community Corrections Center-Omaha||90||161||179%|
|Diagnostic and Evaluation Center, Lincoln||160||547||342%|
|Lincoln Correctional Center||308||502||163%|
|Nebraska Correctional Center for Women, York||275||266||97%|
|Nebraska Correctional Youth Facility, Omaha||68||66||97%|
|Nebraska State Penitentiary, Lincoln||718||1245||173%|
|Omaha Correctional Center||396||687||173%|
|Tecumseh State Prison||960||972||101%|