Governor, Bruning propose new “earned time” law for prisoners

Nebraska Watchdog

By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog

LINCOLN, Neb. – Gov. Dave Heineman and Attorney General Jon Bruning have proposed scrapping the current system of automatically awarding good time to all prisoners and instead requiring the most violent criminals to earn time off for good behavior.

EARN IT: Gov. Dave Heineman has proposed making violent prisoners earn time off for good behavior, rather than automatically awarding it.

Their proposal comes on the heels of a damning state ombudsman’s report that criticized the state corrections department for missing multiple red flags and failing to properly treat Nikko Jenkins, who told prison officials he would kill people after being released, and then allegedly did so. Jenkins is charged with killing four Omahans within weeks of being released from prison last year.

Last week State Ombudsman Marshall Lux released a report that was highly critical of the way the prison system treated – or did not treat – Jenkins. Lux defended the current “good time” law — which essentially cuts prisoners’ sentences in half the day they walk in the door – for helping maintain order in prison.

During a press conference on Monday, the governor was clearly angered by Lux’s report, calling on Lux to support his proposal, saying Jenkins murdered four Nebraskans, not the courts, the police or the prison system. Heineman said Lux “may want to be soft on crime” and care more about prisoners than the victims “but I don’t.”

The governor’s “earned time” proposal would reduce prisoners’ sentences if they behave appropriately and follow their any necessary treatment plans. Lux’s report said few inmates receive treatment for violence or anger problems, and the prison budget has not kept pace with the growing prison population.

Heineman disagreed with the ombudsman’s conclusion that the prison system has been neglected and said the treatment issues raised in the report will be discussed more in the coming days.

Bruning said lots of people have been pointing fingers in the wake of the Jenkins case, but people shouldn’t forget Jenkins is accused of the murders and “he’s to blame.” He said Heineman’s prison directors have been “first-rate,” decent and compassionate.

“This measure is the next best step in our effort to protect Nebraskans,” Bruning said. He said 31 states have a similar “earned time” program.

The new “earned time” law would apply to prisoners convicted of murder, manslaughter, first-degree assault, kidnapping, sexual assault, robbery, escape, assault on an officer and others. Bruning said about 40 percent of the state’s nearly 5,000 prisoners currently meet the definition.

Omaha Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh will sponsor the bill in the Legislature. He said he expects several prison proposals this session.

Formidable filibusterer Sen. Ernie Chambers has vowed to fight efforts to reduce good time, but the governor noted he is only one of 49 senators and lawmakers should be asked whether they “stand with the citizens or the criminals.”

Last month, Heineman approved an administrative change that allows prison officials to take away twice as much “good time” for misbehavior.

“That’s all I can do administratively and now it’s up to the Nebraska Legislature to reform the good time law,” Heineman said.

Asked whether the already over-capacity prison system will have to add more beds to accommodate such changes, the governor said he’ll have more to say about that during his state of the state speech on Wednesday.

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

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