LINCOLN — Nebraska’s effort to reduce prison overcrowding via “justice reinvestment” has fallen far short of projections, and state officials said Tuesday that the policy needs tweaks and more studies.
However, Gov. Pete Ricketts rejected a suggestion from a probable challenger to him in the 2018 elections that the state continue meeting with a national prison reform council.
At Tuesday’s final meeting between Nebraska officials and the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments, Ricketts took issue with suggestions by State Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha, who said more work needs to be done on prison changes, particularly in strategies to keep the mentally ill out of prison and jail. Krist also said it was essential that the 24-member justice reinvestment council not be disbanded after Tuesday’s meeting, because it has driven the reforms.
Ricketts disagreed, saying he’ll continue to meet regularly with the chief justice of the Nebraska Supreme Court and speaker of the Nebraska Legislature to keep on top of reform efforts. He added that some members of the council, namely a subcommittee of corrections, parole and probation officials, will continue to work on reforms.
And with that, the three-year collaboration between the state and the council came to an end.
“Adding more cooks to the kitchen is not the solution,” the governor said. “We need to let the people who do the work do the work.”
In 2014, the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments worked with state leaders to craft reforms aimed at creating alternatives to expensive prison stays.
The state’s inmate population has fallen by only 142 since the reforms took effect two years ago, 779 short of projections.
Sara Friedman of the Justice Center said there were several reasons for that, including that felony arrests have risen much faster than projected and that some of the reforms took longer than expected to enact.
“More definitely needs to be done,” Friedman said.
Douglas and Sarpy County officials said the reforms, which diverted low-level offenders to county jails rather than prison, have overwhelmed their jails.
Many are offenders with mental illnesses and substance abuse problems that, if properly treated or managed, might have stayed out of jail, they said.
As a result, the Douglas County Jail is the largest mental health facility in the state, said Douglas County Public Defender Tom Riley, “and we don’t know what to do with them.”
“All we do is talk about it, but there doesn’t seem to be the political will to get something done,” Riley said.