Lawmakers can protect the children of nonviolent inmates by expanding existing prison reforms and working with judges who sentence parents, a leading expert in sentencing said Tuesday.

Children of such offenders suffer from low academic achievement and struggle as they become adults, said John Hagan, a sociology and law professor at Northwestern University and American Bar Foundation researcher.

Those things should be taken into account when dealing with incarcerated nonviolent offenders, he said.

“We can do a better job at protecting these children” whose parents go to prison, he said.

A panel of Nebraska judges, retired judges and lawmakers joined Hagan on Tuesday at the La Vista Conference Center. They were Omaha State Sen. Bob Krist, retired Judge Gerald Moran, Nebraska Board of Parole member and retired Judge Randall Rehmeier and Judge Leigh Ann Retelsdorf.

While Hagan focused on “mass incarceration” nationally, much of the four-hour forum moderated by Omaha State Sen. Burke Harr dealt with steps Nebraska is taking to promote alternatives to prison and reduce offenders from relapsing.

Lawmakers a year ago passed reforms to punish nonviolent offenders in ways other than imprisonment.

Such reforms meant to reduce overcrowding in the state’s prisons haven’t worked as quickly as expected. Officials with the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments, a group that helped design the changes, said last week that two years passed in Pennsylvania before seeing results from similar reforms.

The state’s prison population was 5,187 as of Monday, which is 158 percent of design capacity. State law allows the governor to declare an emergency when the prison population hits 140 percent of capacity.

Rehmeier said the effects of mass incarceration include the state not being able to keep up with programming and a lack of funding to increase the system’s budget. But he said he believes recent reforms will lead to reductions in prison populations.

“Senators, don’t get frustrated with the prison system yet, because it’s going to get there,” he said.

Krist, a leading lawmaker on corrections issues, said the system still has too many offenders leaving upon their “jam out” date, instead of leaving via parole or supervised release. He also said the Corrections Department lacks adequate programming to rehabilitate those with addictions and to train people to be citizens again.

Despite a major looming budget shortfall, lawmakers need to prioritize investment in corrections, Krist said.

“It’s going to be up to us to say you can’t cut any further in these areas. These are essential services, not just for the prison system, but for public safety,” he said.

Retelsdorf said she’s a believer in recent reforms, specifically Legislative Bill 605, which calls for punishing nonviolent offenders through lower-cost alternatives to prison. However, she said she faces a practical dilemma when saddled with the choice of sentencing an offender to several years of probation, even though they’re not likely to succeed at community supervision, versus sentencing them to a couple of years of prison and a handful of months of supervised release.

A good drug treatment program takes upward of 24 months, she said. Not having immediate and thorough access to treatment through the state prison system, she said, means you won’t get the best results possible.

emily.nohr@owh.com, 402-473-9581

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