LINCOLN — Gov. Dave Heineman charged Monday that those who oppose his proposal to require violent inmates to “earn” good-time reductions in their sentences are “soft on crime” and “stand with the criminals of the state.”
Those opponents would include State Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, who has said he will block any attempt to change the state's good-time law, which gives inmates a one-day reduction in their sentence for every day served in prison.
“Sen. Chambers is just one senator out of 49,” Heineman said. “There are 48 senators who I think believe that public safety is No. 1.”
The governor outlined his proposal to amend the state's good time law at a Monday morning press conference. He was joined by Attorney General Jon Bruning, who helped craft the bill, and Omaha Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh, who will introduce it.
The good time issue was raised in the wake of the case of Nikko Jenkins, a mentally troubled inmate who stands charged with killing four Omahans just days after his release from prison on July 30.
A World-Herald analysis found Jenkins could have spent an additional nine months behind bars if prison officials had taken away the maximum amount of good time for his misbehavior and assaults he committed in prison.
Heineman said it's wrong to grant inmates like Jenkins “automatic” reductions in their sentences. They should have to earn them through good behavior and the completion of rehabilitation programs such as anger management, he said.
“The citizens of Nebraska are demanding and expecting action,” the governor said. “They believe that when a judge sentences someone to 20 years that means the person would serve 20 years, not 10 years, which is the reality under current law.”
When asked if he supported investing more money in prison rehab programs so inmates have the opportunity to earn good time, Heineman deferred, saying he would have more to say about that during his state of the state address on Wednesday.
A recent report by the State Ombudsman's Office, utilizing figures from the Department of Corrections, said that about 1 in 7 prison inmates, or about 700, were on waiting lists for programs that deal with substance abuse, sex offenses and managing violent impulses.
It also stated that only about 13 percent of the state's prison inmates were in rehab programs, and if substance abuse programs were discounted, that number fell to only 3.5 percent.
Some senators have said that corrections has been neglected in recent years. Funding for prisons has risen about 3.5 percent while the inmate population has grown 11.5 percent. But both Heineman and Bruning defended the funding provided, saying that state agencies have to live within their means.
Chambers and others have said that good time wasn't the problem in the Jenkins case because he would have been released anyway. They maintain that he had unaddressed mental health issues, and should have been considered for commitment to a mental hospital instead of being allowed to complete his prison sentence and leave prison.