Bills to address Nebraska’s prison overcrowding stalls

March 28, 2018

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — With limited time left in the legislative session, lawmakers hit a roadblock Tuesday in their efforts to address overcrowding and other problems in the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services.

Sen. Laura Ebke, of Crete, said the package of five bills was intended to be noncontroversial and make small progress toward reducing the prison population. The corrections department faces a state-mandated deadline to significantly reduce the number of incarcerated inmates by 2020.

With only ten working days remaining in the session, the bill’s fate is up in the air because of a filibuster.

Nebraska’s prisons held a combined daily average of 5,229 prisoners last year in facilities that were designed to hold 3,275, placing them at roughly 160 percent of their design capacity, according to the department. Lawmakers imposed a July 1, 2020, deadline to lower that total to 140 percent of capacity.

If the agency doesn’t reach that goal, an “overcrowding emergency” will be declared and officials will have to consider paroling all eligible inmates.

For years, Gov. Pete Ricketts and lawmakers have attempted to address increasing problems within the corrections department, including overcrowding, understaffing, two deadly riots in a two-year span and the June 2016 escape of two inmates. Despite meetings with national consultants, increasing funding for prisons and passing several major laws designed to reduce the crowding, limited progress has been made.

Measures in the package would require a regular staffing analysis to look at employment levels and needs within the mental health department, and require agency officials to create a plan to accelerate the parole review process in the event of an “overcrowding emergency.” The package would also allow the early release of inmates who are terminally ill and create a procedure that would attempt to reduce recidivism by protecting inmates who are at risk of overdosing on opioids after their release.

Many senators voiced concerns that the package did not go far enough to address longstanding issues.

Sen. Bob Krist, of Omaha, said the measure was watered down by attempts to appease department officials and compromises intended to remove anything remotely controversial. The original bill included nine measures, but four were removed. Krist said the package would have been stronger if all the bills remained.

Sen. Ernie Chambers, of Omaha, said legislators were focusing too much on opinions from other agencies and branches of the government, and mounted a filibuster to try and derail the bill. He said the filibuster had “nothing to do with the bill itself,” but was “collateral damage” because the Legislature needs to act independently and without agency influence.

Ebke said the Judiciary Committee tried to screen for potential objections prior to Tuesday’s debate by talking with lawmakers and department officials to find constructive feedback. With only ten working days remaining, she said she is worried legislators may not have the chance to improve corrections this year.

Ebke said she pulled the bill from the floor, and she’s unsure if enough votes remain to bring it back. She said she is hopeful to reach a compromise with Chambers and advance the legislation swiftly next week.