LINCOLN, Neb. — A Nebraska senator recently sounded the alarm about a potential lawsuit in his state’s correctional system. Senator Brad Ashford (I-Omaha), chairman of the state legislature’s judiciary committee, warned that his state must address its prison overcrowding problem or face the risk of judicial action.
Nebraska’s nine prisons are overflowing with 4,603 inmates in a system designed for 3,175. Functioning at 145 percent of the planned capacity puts the state in dangerous waters, as federal judges ordered the state of California to take drastic corrective action in 2011, when that state’s prison system operated at 200 percent of capacity for 11 years. The target set for California to avoid federal intervention was 137.5 percent of capacity, meaning Nebraska is now operating at a level of overcrowding that has been deemed unacceptable by a federal court in the past.
The state has been attempting to address the problem for years. The Nebraska Department of Correctional Services paroled 260 inmates in 2010 to help address the problem, but the issue persisted.
"We're going to have a lawsuit that will force us to build a new prison," Ashford told the Journal Star, a newspaper based in Lincoln, Neb.
Nebraska law dictates that going over the 140 percent mark triggers a report to the governor, who then has an option to declare a state of emergency, a measure Governor Dave Heineman has chosen not to take so far.
Ashford added that the judiciary committee would meet with officials from the state’s department of corrections to seek a solution to the problem in the next few weeks.
The independent senator voiced his opinion that the state should avoid costly prison construction projects and look for alternate means of lowering the inmate population.
"We have too many low-grade offenders in prison right now that are not a threat to themselves or others that should be in community-based services back in their communities," Ashford said. "I need to know why we can't expedite that process."
The senator went on to explain that he was a proponent of using electronic monitoring programs, which costs around $5,000 per inmate, compared to $29,000 a year to house an inmate in a correctional facility.
The Nebraska Department of Correctional Services has been making its own moves to react to the situation, with officials requesting more than $5 million from the state’s lawmakers to reopen a vacant housing unit at the Omaha Correctional Center. The state has also accelerated the implementation of a program that speeds the parole process for low-risk inmates with relatively short sentences, but the rate of growth in the prison population has outpaced the effect of this program, which is still getting off the ground.
Fellow Senator Ernie Chambers (also I-Omaha) argued that the state was being too strict in terms of punishing inmates for misbehavior in prison and denying good behavior time, which was leading to longer sentences for minor offenders.
“As long as I am here, there will be no new prisons built,” Chambers told the Journal Star.