Former prisons head will be in hot seat over sentencing fiasco

By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog

LINCOLN, Neb. – The former head of Nebraska’s prisons system will be in the hot seat next week when he appears before a special investigative legislative committee that’s looking at prison problems.

INVESTIGATION WIDENS: Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop said an investigatory committee he leads will surely ask questions about recent revelations that prison officials knew they were miscalculating prison sentences.

Although the committee was formed to look into a serial murderer’s release from prison despite numerous red flags that he was a danger to society, it will also delve into recent revelations that the corrections department has been knowingly miscalculating prison sentences, releasing some of the most dangerous criminals earlier than they should have been.

The Department of Correctional Services Special Investigative Committee will hold a public hearing on Aug. 8, during which former corrections director Bob Houston will appear.

And while the committee was formed to look into the Nikko Jenkins case, Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop said he expects the committee to also question Houston about the miscalculation of hundreds of prisoners’ sentences. The resolution approved by lawmakers to create the committee talks about “good time,” in which a sentence can be cut in half with good behavior, which is what prison officials used to chop sentences down farther than they should have.

The five-member investigatory committee is unique in that it has subpoena power and can use consultants, investigators and outside legal counsel.

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 practice continued even after two Nebraska Supreme Court rulings clarified how sentences should be calculated. The Supreme Court clarified that state law did not allow good time credit to be applied to the maximum portion of a sentence before the mandatory minimum sentence had been served. But still the practice continued until the Omaha World-Herald exposed the problem last month.

Lathrop said Houston will likely be asked what he knew about it, what the process was, and “if he knows how the ball got dropped.”

And while Houston has to appear at the hearing – he was subpoenaed, which is standard procedure – there’s no telling whether he’ll be inclined to answer questions about the sentencing screw-up, given recent calls for a criminal investigation into the matter.

“I can’t make anybody answer,” said Lathrop, an attorney.

Omaha police union President John Wells is among those who have called for an investigation, in addition to Omaha Sen. Brad Ashford’s call for a special session of the Legislature to look into the matter.

Wells told Nebraska Watchdog a criminal investigation should happen long before a special session.

Ashford sent a letter to lawmakers Wednesday calling for a special session to deal with the prison problems, saying the intentional miscalculation of sentences raises significant oversight and funding issues. He argued the issue couldn’t wait until the Legislature convenes in January, because 17 lawmakers will be gone and with them, institutional wisdom.

He argued that would give Lathrop’s committee time to further look into the Jenkins case and another study group time to gather more information.

“This is a significant crisis,” he wrote. “Let’s not leave any loose ends for the next governor and Legislature.”

Lathrop’s committee will meet at 9 a.m. in room 1524 at the State Capitol. The committee is scheduled to issue its report and recommendations to the Legislature no later than Dec. 15.

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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