‘A mistake was made,’ NE gov says of sentencing screw-up

By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog

LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska’s governor acknowledged Wednesday that mistakes were made in calculating prison sentences for hundreds of the state’s most dangerous inmates, and he says he’ll hold people accountable.

SNAFU: Gov. Dave Heineman says he will hold people accountable for screwups in sentencing prisoners that resulted in hundreds of early releases and miscalculated sentences.

“A mistake was made,” Gov. Dave Heineman said. “Now we need to correct it.”

The Omaha World-Herald reported Sunday the state prison system has been incorrectly calculating sentences, letting prisoners out too early and disregarding state Supreme Court sentencing rulings since 2002.

The governor commented on the controversy during a news conference about a prison reform study. Nebraska Supreme Court Justice Mike Heavican was there but refused to comment on the news that judges’ sentences weren’t being correctly calculated.

“That’s the kind of thing that the chief justice does not comment on,” Heavican said.

Marc Pelka, program director for the Council of State Governments, who also attended the news conference, was in town to help the state develop a long-term strategy for dealing with prison overcrowding.Pelka said he never heard of such a sentencing snafu in other states and that the problem will become a focus of the prison study.

Heineman reiterated his disappointment over the sentencing problems, which the World-Herald says has resulted in hundreds of dangerous criminals getting early releases and chopping months to 15 years off sentences.

“I’m very unhappy with what occurred,” Heineman said. “I intend to hold those responsible accountable. In the meantime, our focus is on those who are out who shouldn’t be.”

On Saturday, Nebraska Corrections Director Michael Kenney put a halt to all prison releases until every prisoner’s sentence is recalculated, the governor said. And the governor has been in talks with Attorney General Jon Bruning to figure out the appropriate next legal steps.

Heineman has said he thinks the 100 prisoners mistakenly released should be rounded up and made to serve the rest of their terms. He said state officials are working on how to do that. But Bruning has indicated those who would’ve completed their sentences by now — and stayed out of trouble — might be better left alone.

“We are going to follow the advice of the attorney general,” Heineman said. “He’s the chief legal officer.”

He said the state needs truth-in-sentencing laws so that when a judge orders a 10- to 20-year term, it’s not automatically chopped in half thanks to the state’s good time law.

But that’s not the problem at hand, and he couldn’t say who was to blame for the sentencing screw-up. Kenney told the World-Herald his department relies on the attorney general to advise it of Supreme Court decisions; Bruning has said his staff repeatedly relayed those sentencing directives to corrections, noting Kenney was a named as a defendant in a “seminal” 2002 case.

Asked who’s to blame, Heineman said, “I’m not going to try to play the blame game.”

“Corrections made a mistake,” he said, adding that “others should have been aware of that,” saying he’ll work with the personnel office to hold people accountable.

“There’s plenty of blame to go around,” Heineman said. “Let’s get this system corrected.”

The governor said it’s worth looking into whether communication between the attorney general’s office and corrections should improve.

The governor has been buffeted by controversies as his final year in office winds down — from this sentencing embarrassment to his controversial decision to go public with applying for the job as president of the University of Nebraska. Despite those “unique challenges,” he said he still wakes up energized and excited about his job, which he called an enormous privilege.

“Every day that I’ve been governor has been a great day,” he said. “Some days are gonna be more challenging than other days, but I still feel the way I’ve always felt.”

Contact Deena Winter at deena@nebraskawatchdog.org. Follow Deena on Twitter at @DeenaNEWatchdog

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Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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