LINCOLN — A day after an annual report revealed little progress in Nebraska’s beleaguered prison system, a debate erupted Friday at the State Capitol over how mandatory minimum prison sentences may affect inmate overcrowding.
No firm data emerged to suggest that mandatory minimums severely overburden Nebraska’s prisons, because they are reserved for serious felonies that generally warrant prison terms.
But prosecutors and police lined up on the side that favors keeping the sentencing laws, while defense attorneys argued that mandatory minimums only prevent judges from making sure the punishment fits the criminal.
The animated discussion during an interim study hearing by the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee likely foreshadowed what’s to come next year when lawmakers resume debate on a carryover bill that would eliminate mandatory minimums for drug offenses in Nebraska.
After the hearing, several Judiciary Committee members reacted with concern about Thursday’s 100-page report showing Nebraska’s ongoing approaches to solve the prison crisis have made little or no headway.
“I think it’s highly distressing,” said State Sen. Patty Pansing-Brooks of Lincoln. “This is not the trend we’re seeking.”
Sen. Laura Ebke of Crete, chairwoman of the committee, expressed similar concerns.
“At some point you have to see some measurable differences,” she said. “At some point you have to stop the bleeding.”
Ebke said she wants to see all three branches of state government continue to meet to figure out the next steps. The governor, the chief justice of the Nebraska Supreme Court and state senators had been meeting with a national prison reform council, but the last of those meetings took place in August.
Gov. Pete Ricketts recently said he does not see the need for a large committee, and said he would continue to meet regularly to discuss the issues with the speaker of the Legislature and the chief justice.
The report by Doug Koebernick, inspector general of the Corrections Department, said Nebraska’s prisons hold 62 percent more inmates than they were designed to house, which makes the state’s system the second-most-crowded in the nation. In addition, the Department of Correctional Services continues to struggle with high rates of staffing vacancies, mandatory overtime, restrictive housing use and inmate-on-staff assaults.
Scott Frakes, director of the Corrections Department, said he has launched several initiatives to address challenges his staff has identified, which include those highlighted by the inspector general.
Under current law, the governor must declare a prison emergency in 2020 if overcrowding has not been reduced to 40 percent above design capacity. Such a declaration would require the state to parole enough inmates to reduce the population to match full design capacity.
Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said he will introduce legislation next session to require an emergency declaration in 2018. Krist formally announced earlier this week that he will mount a third-party campaign to run against Ricketts for governor.
“We need to take some extraordinary steps moving forward or build a new prison. That’s where we’re at,” Krist said.
Ricketts spokesman Taylor Gage on Friday said, “Working together the last three sessions, the governor and Legislature have made significant investments in our Corrections facilities, team members and security measures. We will not respond to political attacks.”
The Governor’s Office does not comment on potential legislation, Gage said, but “declaring an emergency would let violent criminals out of prison and threaten public safety.”
On Friday, the committee heard strong support for mandatory minimum sentences from the police who arrest offenders and the attorneys who prosecute them.
Capt. Scott Gray, who serves in the northeast precinct of the Omaha Police Department, said many criminals are well aware of the crimes that carry mandatory minimums and try to avoid being charged with them.
“Deterring these individuals with hard minimum punishments is likely to save citizens from injury or death and prevent further psychological damage to the community,” he said.
Of the nearly 5,300 inmates currently in state prisons, a total of 1,015 — or 19 percent — are serving mandatory minimum sentences, said Corey O’Brien, criminal bureau chief for the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office.
The majority are repeat felons who were convicted of firearm offenses, O’Brien said. Others are serving mandatory sentences for sexual assault of a child, homicide, robbery and assault. Only 87 were convicted of drug offenses, primarily for trafficking heroin, methamphetamine or cocaine.
“These are not first-time, nonviolent offenders,” he said. “These are repeat offenders who pose a danger to our society.”
Spike Eickholt, a defense attorney who testified on behalf of the ACLU of Nebraska, said the problem with mandatory minimums is they prevent judges from using lighter prison terms or probation if that’s what best serves the offender and society. Serious crimes will always warrant serious punishment, even without mandatory minimums, he argued.
“This is a component of the solution ... to avoid unnecessary and lengthly incarcerations,” he said.