LINCOLN — The state’s top law enforcement officer said Monday that Nebraska may need to build a new prison.
Attorney General Jon Bruning said his preliminary look at the state’s chronically overcrowded prisons leads him to conclude Nebraska has too few prison beds and would risk public safety by releasing hundreds of inmates to relieve the problem.
“I don’t think you’re going to find a huge population of non-violent offenders in our prison system. Most of the people earned their way there,” he said in an interview.
“I think all options have to be on the table, including potentially building a prison,” Bruning said.
The Attorney General’s comments are in contrast with several state leaders, including Gov. Dave Heineman, who are looking at alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders to address prison overcrowding.
Last week, the state’s prisons held about 1,600 more inmates than their design capacity, or about 151 percent of capacity.
Heineman and some in the Nebraska Legislature have said the state needs to avoid the cost of building a new state prison, which could be up to $150 million. They have pointed to several states, including Texas, that have reinvested dollars into lower-cost alternatives such as drug courts and probation to decrease prison populations.
But Bruning said Nebraska’s problem may be that it doesn’t have enough prison beds in the first place.
He said he is still digging into the figures, but that it appears the state has fewer prison beds per capita, and incarcerates fewer inmates per capita, than most states.
Bruning said that Nebraska needs to change its “good time” laws to provide fewer sentencing reductions for violent criminals and require them to earn any good-time reductions in their sentences.
Under current law, inmates are awarded one day of good time for every day spent in prison, effectively cutting their sentences in half. Prison officials can take away good time for violations of prison rules.
“I’m not comfortable having the Nikko Jenkins of the world get out early,” he said.
Jenkins was released from prison on July 30 after completing a sentence for robbery. He now is charged with first-degree murder in four killings in Omaha. Jenkins should have had more good time taken away for assaults and other incidents while was in prison, Bruning and others say.
National corrections statistics from 2012 indicate Nebraska incarcerated in state prisons 247 people per 100,000 of population, the lowest rate among its neighboring states and among the lowest rates in the U.S.
Comparable state-by-state figures for prison beds per capita were not available, but Nebraska has 3,175 state prison beds for its 1.6 million residents.
Marc Nauer, executive director of a Washington, D.C.-based group that advocates for alternatives to prison, said incarceration rates don’t tell the whole story.
Rates of violent crime, state sentencing policies and other factors needs to be considered, said Nauer of The Sentencing Project.
“It’s a question of resources and what is the most cost-effective way to deal with criminals that have the best outcomes,” he said. “How much public safety are you buying for another year in prison?”