Joe Jordan | Nebraska Watchdog
Don’t try and tell State Sen. Brad Ashford the prison scandal is his fault.
“I don’t know how I was supposed to know,” Ashford tells Nebraska Watchdog.
Gov. Dave Heineman
Like any good scandal Nebraska’s prison mess, the subject of at least three investigations, has room for plenty of finger pointing.
Republican Gov. Dave Heineman, who has ordered a criminal probe into the scandal which found inmates, some dangerous, getting out earlier than they should have, says he takes full responsibility for what occurs in state government.
At the same time Heineman has a question for lawmakers looking into the mess. “Maybe they ought to ask themselves what did their own Judiciary Committee do?”
In an extensive interview with Nebraska Watchdog, Ashford—an Omaha Democrat who’s been Chairman of the Judiciary Committee the last eight years and is now running for Congress—says when it comes to prison reform his committee was doing plenty.
Public documents recently released by the attorney general’s office — in response to an open records request by the Omaha World-Herald and Nebraska Watchdog – show several state corrections and attorney general’s office employees were aware corrections employees were miscalculating sentences.
The sentencing fiasco was heightened by the fact that correction workers apparently ignored rulings handed down by the Nebraska Supreme Court.
Sen. Brad Ashford: Some code agency intentionally violates the law, I didn’t anticipate that would ever happen. Nobody ever came to us and said there’s something going on, something amiss, with the sentencing. I don’t have the ability to know that unless somebody tells us about it.
Nebraska Watchdog: Did you drop the ball?
Sen. Brad Ashford: We actually did the opposite, Joe. We started in February or March of 2013 working on legislation to address the prison overcrowding issue. That was the issue that was presented to us by the (Corrections) Department was “we’re overcrowded, we’re at 140 percent.” That’s when we started looking at (overcrowding) in great depth. I don’t think we dropped the ball at all. We were actually ahead of the game a little bit, had we known about the sentencing miscalculations we would have done something about that too. I don’t know how we would have known; no one brought it to our attention, no one indicated there was a sentencing problem.
Nebraska Watchdog: But isn’t that what oversight is supposed to do?
Sen.Brad Ashford: But we didn’t know there was a problem with sentencing.
Nebraska Watchdog: But isn’t oversight supposed to find things out before they get too far down the road?
Sen. Brad Ashford: Well, this started a long time ago. This sentencing miscalculation has been going on since the ‘90’s.
Nebraska Watchdog: Well doesn’t that make the argument, that you should have known sooner, even more apparent?
Sen: Brad Ashford: There have been several Judiciary Committees since that time and several governors and several directors of the Department of Corrections. I don’t think there was anything special about what we were doing or not doing that would have alerted us to the miscalculations. What we did do, the difference maker, is we did introduce legislation on oversight (LB999) and prison reform (LB907), they passed in 2014.
Nebraska Watchdog: Was there sufficient enough oversight in it (LB999) to expose the problem with the sentencing miscalculations?
Sen. Brad Ashford: Yes, it would have been found out…The Council of State Government study would have found this—they were going to review all these sentencing issues. The other way it would have been found out is it would have alerted the parole board because the parole board didn’t know. That’s the most amazing part of all this. The parole board didn’t know these sentence miscalculations were occurring.
Ashford and Heineman have been sparring over the need for a special session of the legislature on the sentencing debacle.
Heineman says it’s not needed. Ashford—who says he’d wait until after Election Day to take politics out of the issue—wants to increase oversight of the Corrections Department.
Ashford is running for Congress against incumbent Republican Lee Terry.
Contact Joe Jordan at email@example.com.
Joe can be heard on Omaha’s KFAB radio every Monday at 7:40 a.m. and KHAS-AM in Hastings every Wednesday at 7:30 a.m. and 12:45 p.m.
To subscribe to news updates from Nebraska Watchdog at no charge, click here