Conservative and liberal group combine to tackle prison reform

By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog

LINCOLN, Neb. – A conservative and liberal group joined hands Thursday in studying prison reforms and promoting two bills aimed at reducing recidivism and easing prison overcrowding.

BURSTING: A prison reform expert says only Alabama’s prisons are more crowded than Nebraska’s.

The Platte Institute, a conservative think tank, and the Holland Children’s Movement, which is aimed at reducing child poverty and funded by Omaha Democratic philanthropist Richard Holland, combined to produce a report on controlling costs and protecting public safety.

Prison reform is a hot issue this legislative session in the aftermath of a string of high-profile crimes committed by prisoners and ex-prisoners, including an mass murder case in Omaha.

The report endorses the ideals behind Sen. Brad Ashford’s prison reform bills and makes a number of other reform recommendations to grapple with a prison system that’s 40 percent over capacity and expected to be 188 percent over by 2020.

Platte Institute CEO Jim Vokal said Nebraska’s prison challenge isn’t a Democratic or Republican issue, it’s an economic and quality of life issue.

“This is the way it’s supposed to work,” he said of the groups’ bipartisan effort. Building prisons is costly, he said, and his group is interested in alternatives to incarceration.

John Cavanaugh, chief operating officer for the Holland Children’s Movement, said his group was invited to participate in the update of an earlier prison study, which he called a “brilliant road map.”

Ashford said it wasn’t odd for him to see Vokal and Cavanaugh on the same page, because they’re both friends and they sometimes agree.

“When you sit down and talk about issues, on most things you’re really closer together than farther apart,” he said. Looking at alternatives to incarceration and more supervision of ex-cons would cost peanuts compared to building more prisons, Ashford said. The state is “asking for trouble” when it releases prisoners with no treatment and two weeks’ worth of medication, he said.

“We cannot build our way out of this problem,” he said.

Prison reform scholar Marc Levin, a director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, attended a press conference with the groups on Thursday. He said only Alabama has a more crowded prison system. In Nebraska, 49 percent of prison inmates are discharged without any supervision, which leads to more recidivism, he said. Ashford’s bill, LB907, would provide more supervision of ex-inmates and LB999 would help prisoners make the transition back into society, he said.

Implementation of the “Right on Crime” conservative criminal justice initiative led to a double-digit decrease in incarceration in Texas, enabling the state to close three prisons and six juvenile jails, he said.

The report notes that Nebraska lawmakers began to realize the folly of get-tough-on-crime policies, because just locking people up wasn’t enough. By one estimate, the state of Nebraska spends $35,950 on each inmate annually.

Key factors in Nebraska’s crowded prisons are a truth-in-sentencing law passed in 1993 and mandatory minimum sentences.

The report says 31 percent of Nebraska prisoners have a mental health diagnosis and 88 percent have a substance abuse diagnosis – which both exceed the national average.

“Truly tough policies would hold nonviolent offenders accountable not just by incarcerating them, but by putting them into treatment and rehab programs where they’d be forced to reckon with their substance abuse, mental health and behavioral problems,” the report said.

Other recommendations in the report include sentencing reform (adjusting the thresholds for felony theft, for example), eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for the sale of marijuana and making it easier for ex-cons to get occupational licenses.

“This isn’t a partisan issue,” Levin said. It’s about how to allocate limited tax dollars.

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

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