Officials around the country are closing prisons as crime rates fall and public attitudes toward drug use change, but not in Nebraska, where the governor is pressing for a new $230 million prison to ease overcrowding and house a rapidly growing inmate population.
While it’s unclear if lawmakers will back Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts’ proposal to create a 1,512-bed maximum security prison, the fact that the state is proposing a 37 percent rise in bed space is unusual.
Sen. John McCollister, who has proposed legislation this year to try to get more prisoners into recovery facilities, says he doesn’t get it.
“It’s a shame Nebraska hasn’t learned from other states’ mistakes,” McCollister said. “It’s clear that we’re going against the grain.”
Other states are taking a different path to expanding their jail capacity than Nebraska.
California expects to close one jail, which houses about 1,500 prisoners, this year and another by 2022, in part due to state budget cuts. With the state’s prison population at its lowest in three decades, Connecticut expects to shutter two prisons.
Missouri’s Republican-led legislature closed one of its high-security prisons in 2019, saving an estimated $20 million and reducing the maximum sentence for minor drug crimes and allowing more nonviolent offenders to be paroled.
Attempts to decrease Nebraska’s prison population have failed in the past due to prosecutors and law enforcement resistance. The attorney general of Nebraska has argued that the majority of those serving mandatory minimum sentences in Nebraska are repeat offenders or have committed serious drug offenses, such as manufacturing massive quantities of methamphetamine.
Prosecutors say that offenders who aren’t able to live under the rules end up committing serious crimes, such as home invasion robberies and murder, and must be kept out of the public eye.
“To end up in jail on a possession case, you have to work pretty hard,” said Lancaster County Attorney Pat Condon. “You’re offered many ways to change it around” in most drug situations.
Ricketts and other top Nebraska officials recently launched a new initiative to figure out why the state’s prison population has risen.
However, Ricketts admitted that closing prisons is “very unlikely” as the state works to reduce overcrowding. At the very least, he said, the state’s oldest jail, the Nebraska State Penitentiary, constructed in 1869, needs to be replaced.
“We are all aware that we are confronted with a variety of challenges,” he said.
According to federal estimates, Nebraska had the nation’s second-most overcrowded jails in 2019, with 5,500 prisoners housed in facilities built for 4,050. Inmates are expected to number 6,438 by 2025, according to corrections officials. The state has ten jails, but none have been built since 2001.
Between 2009 and 2019, Nebraska’s prison population increased by 27%, while the state’s total population increased by 7%.
According to Scott Frakes, director of the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, the rise is due to a variety of reasons, including a large number of former prisoners who breach their parole. State laws that create new crimes, according to Frakes, also contribute to the rise.
“Maybe it leads to another five or ten people going to prison,” Frakes said, “but if you add it up over time, it leads to our current incarceration rate.”
According to one report, 429 of the 1,050 Nebraska prisoners who were paroled in 2016 were subsequently returning to jail, mainly for minor infractions like associating with other felons or substance usage. Officials claim that many prisoners do not complete their substance addiction treatment or other services.
Before endorsing a new jail, Sen. John Stinner, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said he needs to consider other choices.
“Obviously, keeping the public safe is the most important thing,” Stinner said. “However, this is a multimillion-dollar decision, and there is still competition for funds within the budget.”
Since Nebraska doesn’t have a high incarceration rate relative to other states, prison diversion programs won’t be able to significantly decrease inmate numbers, according to Doug Koebernick, inspector general for the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services. Nebraska is ranked 36th in the nation, with an average of 289 inmates per 100,000 people. With a rate of 680 per 100,000, Louisiana has the highest rate.
States with high imprisonment rates, he claims, have more leeway to reduce their figures by reforming sentencing laws.
Nonetheless, Koebernick believes that more “community corrections” beds, which concentrate on recovery and effective reintegration into society, should be considered by policymakers.
“This is a very expensive, long-term decision,” said Koebernick.
States with a “revolving door” of returning parole violators must examine whether they have proper care or work training for those released, according to Marshall Clement, an executive with the Council of State Governments Justice Center, which has researched prison patterns.
He believes that solving the problem would require collaboration between legislators, courts, and governors.
“No single branch of government can solve this on its own,” Clement said.