County jails face inmate overcrowding

December 13, 2017

LINCOLN -- In 2015, two prisoners were killed by fellow inmates in Tecumseh State Prison following a riot on Mother’s Day. Two more inmates were killed in 2017 after inmates took control of part of the maximum security prison.

Some have pointed to overcrowding in prisons as the cause of these incidents. Now, many county sheriffs worry that prison overcrowding has in turn increased the average daily population of county jails, with a large number of facilities at or above capacity.

In January of 2015, Nebraska’s state prisons were running at 160 percent capacity, holding about 2,000 more inmates than they were designed to hold.

State legislators have been trying to help ease prison overcrowding and passed Legislative Bill 605 in 2015 as a step to accomplish that. The bill’s goal is to reduce the number of people sent to state prisons by increasing the minimum threshold for felony theft from $500 to $1,500. It also required nonviolent felons be put on probation in lieu of prison time unless a judge decided otherwise.

Nebraska had the fourth most overcrowded prison system in the country in 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. While the state is trying to reduce the prison population, some sheriffs are concerned that overcrowding is simply being shifted to county jails.

Since 2015, jails have seen an influx of detainees. A report from the Nebraska Crime Commission shows that 33 percent of the 67 adult detention facilities in operation were operating at or above housing capacities. That’s an 11 percent jump from 2015′s 22 percent.

Capt. Dan Shukis, the jail commander in Sarpy County, said he’s seen an increase in inmate population in recent years. The Sarpy County jail was built in 1989 and has 148 beds, but the county is looking to build a new facility or add another wing to accommodate for additional inmates.

“It’s got a maximum of 148 beds, and we’ve surpassed that on a daily basis,” he said. “We’re overcrowded.”

According to the Nebraska Crime Commission, the facility’s average daily population is 172. Shukis said the jail sends an additional 30 to 80 inmates to other county jails daily, which can be costly: the jail spent $1.2 million last year boarding inmates in other facilities. That’s about 17.6 percent of the jail’s $6.8 million annual budget.

Still, Shukis said that even with a lack of space, the jail holds inmates from the state prison on occasion. The facility housed 56 state inmates between January and September of 2017.

Efforts are underway to increase space in county jails; the Nebraska Crime Commission reported that construction added 30 beds to adult detention and holding facilities between December 2016 and June 2017. But Shukis said the effects of LB 605 on Sarpy County outweigh the 30 new beds in jails across the state.

“The state’s trying to reduce their population (with LB605), but in fact, it’s increasing ours because of this law,” Shukis said.

The bill does help decrease the number of people in jail or prison by allowing more to be put on parole, but Shukis said this leaves the “worst of the worst” in county jails, leaving staff to work with a “tougher clientele.”

Todd Bahensky, the corrections director of the Hall County Department of Corrections, has seen similar issues following the passing of LB 605. He said he’s seen a number of people put on probation who would rather do their time behind bars.

“A lot of the people getting on probation sometimes aren’t very good candidates for probation,” Bahensky said. “They don’t want to be on probation. They just want to go to prison and get the time done and be done with it rather than be on probation for three or four years and have to check in with the probation office.”

Bahensky said the bill hasn’t affected the Hall County jail as much as other counties’ facilities, but he has seen more serious criminals come through the doors.

“The more serious crimes are more problems for us,” he said. “But at the same time, there’s not a lot of violent crimes in the lower end. The violent crimes are more likely to go to the penitentiary.”

Many of the county jails see no other option than to increase the size of county jails or offer pretrial diversion to accommodate the additional inmates.

“I have no control over LB 605,” Shukis said. “As far as (a solution to) overcrowding in general, that’s why we’re looking at building a wing (or) building a new facility.”

This story is part one of a three-part series on overcrowding in Nebraska county jails.

Contact Bailey Schulz at nns.bschulz@gmail.com.