Nebraska has made sound beginnings in recent years in creating prison alternatives through problem-solving courts — drug courts, a DUI court, veterans treatment courts, re-entry courts.
These sensible alternatives, involving support services and monitoring for appropriately selected offenders, provide a significant cost savings over conventional imprisonment. Supervising someone via a Nebraska problem-solving court has an annual average cost of $2,865. The yearly cost to house someone in a Nebraska prison: $38,627.
These alternative courts have an additional benefit: They’ve proven effective. About 70% of the court participants successfully complete their 12- to 18-month rehabilitation programs, The World-Herald’s Paul Hammel reports. About 91% of graduates remained crime-free after a year and 94% were employed, a 2015 study found.
Nebraska lawmakers are rightly looking to expand use of these courts. The 26 problem-solving courts around the state currently handle about 1,000 offenders, with a savings to the state of about $15 million annually. Current funding is about $3.8 million. Lawmakers are looking to give a boost of $2.4 million to four of the existing courts that could most quickly expand their services.
At the same time, state senators need to be aware that expanded work by the problem-solving courts will add to the workload of district court judges.
The Legislature’s Judiciary Committee heard testimony this session about this challenge. Lancaster District Court Judge Robert Otte, for example, said district court judges recognize the importance of the work, but the added caseload can be “demanding.” This is one reason why the Legislature has approved Legislative Bill 309, to give Douglas County District Court, now at 16 judges, an additional judge in two years, given the heavy caseloads.
Still, problem-solving courts clearly bring major benefits, especially as a tool to help alleviate some of the stress on Nebraska’s prison system, now challenging Alabama as the nation’s most overcrowded.
State Sen. John Stinner of Gering, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, correctly sums up this investment as “money well spent on programs that have proven to be successful.” Lawmakers are right to include this sound investment in the budget bill.