LINCOLN — With efforts lagging to reduce overcrowding in Nebraska’s prisons, a national authority on prison reform says the state should focus on getting more inmates ready for release on parole.

Currently, there are more than 1,000 inmates in state prisons who are eligible for parole but who haven’t won release from the State Board of Parole because, in many cases, they haven’t completed the rehabilitation programs required to be released.

It’s a Catch-22 that draws a lot of finger-pointing: Inmates complain that they can’t get into programs because of waiting lists or because the programs aren’t offered at their prison, and state officials say that many inmates refuse to attend rehab classes or simply are too much of a safety risk to be released.

“We’re doing the best we can. But our No. 1 priority is public safety,” said Rosalyn Cotton, head of the five-member State Board of Parole.

Cotton said the board is taking another look at those 1,000 parole-eligible inmates and what is blocking their release, and has launched an effort to provide some programming to inmates after they are paroled, instead of requiring it beforehand.

It’s a critical issue for Nebraska, which has the second-most overcrowded prisons in the country (behind Alabama) and is facing a federal civil rights lawsuit because of it.

Is is also facing a deadline in state law to reduce the overcrowding.

By July 1, 2020, Nebraska must decrease its prison overcrowding to 140 percent of capacity or declare a prison “overcrowding emergency.” That would force the Board of Parole to begin releasing dozens and perhaps hundreds of parole-eligible inmates, unless they present a “very substantial risk” of violence.

It’s an emergency state lawmakers say they want to avoid because inmates may not be adequately prepared, risking public safety.

“A pretty simple” fix to Nebraska’s overcrowding woes would be to better prepare inmates so they could be released on parole, said Marc Levin, a leader in prison reforms in Texas through the Right on Crime initiative of the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

The Parole Board is in the process of granting inmates an early release from prison, under supervision, if they behave behind bars and complete rehab programs, such as those that address anger, substance abuse or sexual offenses.

Levin came to Nebraska last month to discuss the state’s prison issues. In 2015, a sentencing-reform law was adopted that was supposed to reduce prison populations by about 700 inmates by now. Instead, because of several factors, the state’s overcrowding has stayed about the same, with 5,222 inmates in state cells as of last week.

If Nebraska could get more inmates into rehabilitation programs, and get them through programs sooner, more would be ready for release, Levin said. It could mean a reduction of 400 to 500 inmates, enough to get the state close to that looming target to reduce crowding to 140 percent or less. In Texas, beefed up programming, and increased parole, helped solved the overcrowding problem, he said.

“We didn’t pass a law that the Parole Board had to parole more people, it just happened naturally because they felt more comfortable about it,” Levin said.

But state officials say it isn’t quite that easy.

The Parole Board, for instance, recently began reviewing inmates earlier — two years before their initial parole eligibility date — so they would have more time to complete rehab work. That could also help get more inmates into work-release programs that better prepare them for a return to society.

“This is going to help us, this is going to help the individual (inmates),” said Cotton.

But, she said, there are many reasons inmates don’t win parole. Sometimes, Cotton said, inmates decline to participate in rehab programs, or are deemed too high of a risk for parole.

Waiting lists to get into programs required to become parole eligible have been a barrier.

As of Jan. 1, the state had 300 inmates on waiting lists for programs who were already past their parole eligibility dates — in other words, inmates who could qualify for release if they had completed their anger management or substance abuse classes. State statistics showed that most waiting lists had grown from mid-2017 to the end of the year, and that about 100 fewer inmates were participating in programs.

Dawn-Renee Smith, a spokeswoman for the Nebraska Department of Corrections, said the statistics aren’t as bad as they look. The agency has begun assessing inmates’ programming needs much earlier, which is a good thing, Smith said, but that puts more inmates on waiting lists. Stats showing a decline in program participants were a “snapshot” in time and might have reflected a recent graduation of inmates, not that fewer inmates are taking rehab classes, Smith said.

Corrections is offering more programming, she said. Four more violence reduction classes have been added, and the capacity to treat sex offenders has expanded with the hiring of new mental health professionals, Smith said.

“In calendar year 2018, I think we’ll see some really good stuff coming out of there,” Smith said.

Cotton said the Parole Board is also looking at other options in delivering programming. One — involving one inmate so far — is for an inmate to undergo substance abuse training at a private facility in O’Neill, rather than at a prison.

The Parole Board, in recent weeks, has begun a new approach in punishing parole violators: with a quickly ordered weekend at a county jail, instead of going through the more lengthy process of returning them to prison, which increases overcrowding.

But others remain skeptical.

Inmate Jose Rodriguez, who is on waiting lists for both substance abuse treatment and for inpatient sex offense therapy, said that while the changes “look good on paper,” the reality is, many inmates are still waiting. Because the sex offender program isn’t offered at his Omaha prison, he’ll have to be transferred to take it at a Lincoln prison that he considers more dangerous. It doesn’t make sense, he said.

State Sen. Laura Ebke of Crete, who heads the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, said the state needs to “expedite” its work on reducing overcrowding.

“We need to have some serious conversations,” Ebke said. “The problem is that a lot of the solutions that are out there are going to cost money.”

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Reporter - Regional/state issues

Paul covers state government and affiliated issues. He specializes in tax and transportation issues, following the governor and the state prison system. Follow him on Twitter @PaulHammelOWH. Phone: 402-473-9584.

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