Diverting a significant number of nonviolent offenders to prison alternatives such as treatment, training and probation makes much sense. The strategy reduces the recidivism rate and opens up positive opportunities for offenders. It saves taxpayer money and puts criminal justice resources to more suitable use.
Many states are pursuing such a practical approach. The federal government recently began moving in that direction.
Nebraska has made significant progress in creating effective prison alternatives, the chief justice of the Nebraska Supreme Court recently told the state Legislature. But more needs to be done, Chief Justice Michael Heavican said in his annual State of the Judiciary Address.
These prison-alternative “problem-solving courts” are in all of the state’s 12 judicial districts. Last year they worked to steer 1,397 individuals toward a constructive path outside prison.
Most of the courts deal with offenders suffering from substance abuse addiction. Since 2008, Heavican said, the number of individuals served has increased by 247 percent.
This approach is clearly a more responsible use of public funds. Housing someone in the state prison system costs about $38,627 a year. The annual cost for handling a case through a problem-solving court? About $2,865.
The court system works collaboratively with agencies and nonprofits to deliver services using evidence-based standards.
A promising step forward is Nebraska’s creation of two problem-solving courts, including one in Douglas County, focusing on veterans convicted of committing a nonviolent felony. Twenty-eight individuals currently are in the court program.
Completing the 18- to 24-month veterans court regimen requires dedication and self-discipline. Participants must keep a job and stay clean of drug or alcohol abuse. They need to pass rehabilitation classes, pay restitution if there were financial damages from their crimes and meet regularly with a judge.
Trained veteran mentors help veterans deal with substance abuse, mental health and other challenges. Veterans participating in the program praise the mentors’ dedication.
Four veterans graduated from the Douglas County program last June, one in December and seven more in a ceremony Thursday. At graduation, each individual wears a gold-colored dog tag with a message of redemption: “Honor Restored.”
Funding for Nebraska’s prison-alternative courts has been under strain, Heavican told lawmakers: “During this past budget year, we completely exhausted our allocated resources for problem-solving courts and had to move some probation dollars to fund those initiatives.”
The fiscal challenge applies not only to the existing courts but also to any additional ones being considered, the chief justice said, including mental health courts whose services could give some relief to county jails now holding offenders with behavioral health problems.
“Nor do we have the necessary number of judges available in Douglas County and our other urban counties,” Heavican said, “for further problem-solving court expansion.”
Nebraska’s court system deserves praise for its dedicated work to provide effective prison alternatives. Nebraska lawmakers would do well to maintain strong support for this effort, as much as sound budget management allows.