LINCOLN — The state is looking at using county jail cells to address overcrowding in state prisons, officials said Friday.
Nebraska now houses 1,604 more inmates than it has room for at the nine main prisons. That's 151 percent of capacity.
About 10 new county jails have vacant cells and should be explored as a possible solution, said State Sens. Brad Ashford and Heath Mello, both of Omaha.
“There's an immediate problem we need to solve. I'm convinced now that we can't manage our way out of it,” said Ashford, who heads the Legislature's Judiciary Committee.
He labeled the state's prison overcrowding problem a “crisis.”
Mello, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said using county jails should cost less than housing inmates in state prisons.
That also would buy the state time to obtain alternatives to imprisonment that would stave off the need for a new $130 million prison.
No one, Mello said, wants to build a new state prison.
State Corrections Director Bob Houston said using county jails for state prisoners was “just in the thinking stage” now and needs more exploration. But he said something needs to be done with overcrowding.
“We're not too far away from reaching the saturation point,” Houston said. “There's no additional places to put beds.”
The county jail idea emerged in a Friday meeting of leaders involved in corrections, probation and parole. The session was called by Ashford to discuss ways to alleviate prison overcrowding.
Nebraska's prison population has grown larger over the past two decades despite efforts to speed up and increase the parole of inmates. The state also has developed alternatives such as drug courts and intensely supervised probation.
The governor can call an emergency when state prison populations top 140 percent of capacity. But Gov. Dave Heineman has declined to do so, saying he has confidence that state prison officials can manage the situation.
At Friday's meeting, that didn't appear to be the case without finding more cells.
Houston said a check of prison inmate records indicates there are fewer than expected who would be candidates for early release through parole or prison alternatives.
For example, prison officials looked at about 50 inmates sentenced for nonviolent property offenses. They found that many had long criminal records or more serious past offenses that made them unlikely candidates for release.
At Friday's meeting, probation officials said drug courts and stricter probation programs also are filled to capacity. To boost that number would require hiring new probation officers and drug counselors.
Releasing more inmates via parole, toward the end of their sentences, has been stepped up. But it hasn't stemmed overcrowding. The number of inmates on parole has more than doubled since 2010, from 618 to 1,348 today, according to state figures.
Those at the meeting were presented with a sobering estimate of future prison overcrowding — in two years, a consultant projects, Nebraska will have 5,249 inmates in prison.
That's 470 more than today and would put the state more than 2,000 prisoners above capacity. One fear is that the state might be sued or face a federal judge's order to build new cells.
To handle the projected overload by 2015, the state would have to build two facilities the size of the newest and largest prison, Tecumseh State Prison. Tecumseh has 960 beds.
Ashford said using county jails for now will provide time to launch or enhance alternatives to prison.
“We have to move now, though,” Ashford said.
Larry Dix, director of the Nebraska Association of County Officials, recently approached the state about using county jails to stave off building a new state prison.
Dix said the same taxpayers finance state and local jail cells, so it makes sense to use vacant cells in county jails to solve the overcrowding problem.
He said he did not know how much it might cost. Last year, Saunders County charged $40 to $45 a day to house inmates, which would be considerably less than the state's current expenses.
Houston said that for many years, the state has housed some county inmates either for protection or evaluation. This latest proposal would send prisoners in the opposite direction.
“I think there's a real possibility there,” he said.