Prison overcrowding emergency: What's next?

Prison overcrowding emergency: What's next?

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This week’s column will focus upon the prison overcrowding emergency that will be declared in Nebraska on July 1. On that date, our state’s prison population will be in excess of a threshold (140%) for design capacity set by a law passed in 2015. Since Nebraska's prison population is above that percentage, an emergency will be declared. The only required action as a result of the declaration is a review of all parole-eligible inmates, including reconsideration of those that have already been denied parole. This does not change the criteria for parole eligibility and will not lead to a mass release of inmates.

The current overcrowding statistic is based on a measurement of "design capacity," which is the capacity estimated by the original architects of the prisons. Many other states gauge their prison capacity by "operational capacity," which is the functional capacity of the prison based on current standards. Nebraska's prison population currently stands at 158% of design capacity; however, our current population is at 116% of operational capacity.

Many of you have contacted my office concerned about what this means for our state and what’s next. There seems to be two sides to this debate: expand capacity (i.e. build a new prison) or lower the population (i.e. release prisoners and offer less harsh sentences for crimes). This will likely be a major subject of debate in the 2021 session. I support expanding capacity for a few reasons. Nebraska has one of the lowest per capita rates of imprisonment in the Midwest, yet one of the highest overcrowding rates due to a decades-long failure to invest in new facilities. Our state already attempted sentencing reform with LB 605 in 2015, which was projected by national outlets to drop our prison population by 1,000 inmates. Five years later, no such drop has occurred. Our state cannot sacrifice safety by releasing dangerous inmates early. We need to invest in a new facility.

"What about releasing all of the non-violent drug offenders?" This has been another common question fielded by my office. Nebraska simply does not have a pool of low-level offenders to release, due to the high bar for imprisonment in our state. 14% of Nebraska's prison population has a drug crime as their most serious offense. The average number of prior convictions amongst that population: 20. Inmates who have a drug crime as their most serious offense have an average of 20 prior convictions. The pool of imprisoned low-level drug offenders simply doesn't exist in Nebraska.

I hope this can provide some clarity to a complex issue facing our state. The safety of District 1 and our staff members at Tecumseh State Correctional Facility will remain at the forefront of my attention throughout this process.

As always, I welcome your input on issues important to you. Follow along on my Facebook and Twitter pages, both entitled "Senator Julie Slama" for more updates, or contact me directly at Senator Julie Slama, District 1 State Capitol, PO Box 94604, Lincoln, NE 68509-4604; telephone 402-471-2733; email: jslama@leg.ne.gov

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