LINCOLN — Saying the public deserves answers, Nebraska lawmakers on Friday approved a special investigation into accused killer Nikko Jenkins' incarceration and release.
The Legislature voted 31-0 to create a seven-member legislative oversight committee, with subpoena powers, to dig into the case.
State Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, who introduced the resolution, said oversight is needed because the Department of Correctional Services has not been forthcoming about how it dealt with Jenkins.
“The public deserves to know how Nikko Jenkins was allowed to walk the streets of Omaha and allegedly cause the death of four people,” Lathrop said.
The committee was one of two special legislative investigations launched on Friday.
The other will look into the problem-plagued state call center system that handles public benefits applications.
Legislative Resolution 424 charges the Department of Correctional Services Special Investigative Committee with studying Jenkins' history, including juvenile justice and child welfare involvement, and how the state prison system handled him.
The study is to look into Jenkins' threats to kill, his requests for treatment and prison officials' response.
Jenkins was released July 30, despite repeatedly saying he wanted to get out and kill people and repeatedly asking to be sent to the state psychiatric hospital. He was not sent to the hospital.
Instead, he is back behind bars, accused in four killings that occurred within a month of his release.
State prison officials have said that Jenkins was not mentally ill, and that under state law, they had no choice but to release him from prison upon completion of his sentence.
Lathrop said the public needs to know if Jenkins is like a canary in a coal mine — an early warning of more serious problems in the prison system.
Nebraska's prisons have been overcrowded for months. The inmate population stood at 156 percent of capacity as of Feb. 28.
The new committee is tasked with investigating whether prison overcrowding played a role in Jenkins' release.
It also is charged with looking into the department's programs and policies, especially concerning isolation of prisoners in segregated cells and supervision of inmates upon their release.
“We are in a perfect storm,” Lathrop said, adding that the committee will be a vehicle to facilitate prison reform.
The Judiciary Committee is working on bills starting the reform process. The state also has asked for help from the Council of State Governments, which has worked with other states on changing how they handle criminals.
Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha told colleagues that members of the committee cannot be timid in recommending changes. He said they also must be willing to work hard and “get into the muck and mire.”
“We need to inject humaneness into a very inhumane system,” he said, adding that the corrections system “created the monster that was sent amongst us.”
Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln said lawmakers have a responsibility also to corrections employees. Coash, who has five corrections facilities in his west Lincoln district, said workers report that the growing numbers of inmates make safety more and more difficult to achieve.
Neither corrections officials nor Gov. Dave Heineman's office responded to a request for comment Friday.
In January, corrections officials disputed a report from the State Ombudsman's Office questioning how the department had handled Jenkins, while Heineman accused the ombudsman of being soft on crime.
Earlier Friday, lawmakers approved a resolution introduced by Sen. Annette Dubas of Fullerton to create the AccessNebraska Special Investigative Committee.
The seven-member committee is to look into the continuing problems with AccessNebraska, a call center system run by the Department of Health and Human Services.
The system has been plagued by long wait times, lost documents and inaccuracies. Wait times dropped some this fall after two of the four call centers started specializing in Medicaid, while the other two continue handling food programs, heating assistance and other public benefits.
However, Dubas said, the split created new problems of coordination.
“This program has been in place since 2009, and we are still trying to make it work,” she said. “I don't know how much longer we can continue to nibble around the edges.”
While debating the AccessNebraska resolution, some senators questioned the number of legislative investigations and how their work fits with the regular legislative committees.
But Sen. John Harms of Scottsbluff said the special investigations have proved their value in recent years.
A special legislative committee that looked into care problems at the Beatrice State Developmental Center, including the deaths of some residents, prompted changes in how developmentally disabled people are treated in the state.
An investigation into the state's experiment with child welfare privatization led to the passage of several measures that are helping stabilize the system.
“Unless you have a committee like this reviewing it, it will not get better,” Harms said. “If someone's not there watching, they slide back.”
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