Governor, lawmakers clash over Nikko Jenkins case

By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog

LINCOLN, Neb. – The governor used his bully pulpit Wednesday to wade into a hot-button issue in the congressional race — the state’s “good time” law, which chops prisoners’ sentences in half.

Gov. Dave Heineman

Gov. Dave Heineman blasted Democratic senators — including the one mounting a serious challenge to Republican Congressman Lee Terry — for failing to change the law in the wake of Nikko Jenkins’ murderous rampage, but lawmakers investigating the Jenkins’ case say that’s not the crux of what went wrong.

The governor joined Terry in pointing fingers at his Democratic opponent, Brad Ashford, for failing to change the good time law in the wake of the Jenkins case. After being in solitary confinement for two years, Jenkins was released from prison and killed four people within 10 days.

Heineman penned a “special column” Wednesday — in addition to his regular weekly column published by some newspapers — about the issue, saying he wanted to set the record straight. He said the good time law — which he notes was supported by Ashford and Sen. Ernie Chambers, I-Omaha — was passed in the early 1990s.

Ten years ago, Jenkins was sentenced to 14 to 15 years of imprisonment for two counts of robbery, plus in 2006 he got another two years for an assault and in 2011 another two to four years for assaulting a guard. That’s a total of 18 to 21 years. But with good time, he got one day off for every day served, knocking his sentence down to nine to 10.5 years.

In January, Heineman promoted a bill that would have repealed the good time law and required violent offenders to earn their good time rather than automatically get it. But the bill never got out of the Judiciary Committee, which Ashford chairs, effectively killing it. In his column, Heineman criticized Ashford and his vice chairman, Sen. Steve Lathrop, for supporting automatic good time.

Sen. Brad Ashford

But since state lawmakers can’t turn back time and repeal good time before Jenkins was released, the special committee investigating the Jenkins case has focused on why he was released despite his repeated promises to kill people. Jenkins begged for treatment and to be committed to the state psychiatric hospital, but got neither.

That’s why legislative hearings have focused on the amount of treatment Jenkins got (or didn’t get), the amount of time he spent in solitary confinement (two years straight before his release) and why he wasn’t committed.

On Friday, Lathrop called Terry desperate in trying to blame Ashford for Jenkins’ rampage, saying the blame lies with the state corrections department, which is run by Heineman. The state GOP chairman responded by calling on Lathrop to resign from chairing the investigatory committee, saying his comments indicated he’s already made a judgment about the case before the committee finished its work. But the committee will likely only hold one more Jenkins-related hearing to explore mental health issues and solitary confinement.

“This committee’s doing very serious work looking at some very serious problems with the Department of Corrections and I do not want to involve myself in trying to politicize that,” Lathrop said Wednesday.

But he did reiterate his belief that prison crowding has been central to several prison scandals, such as sentencing miscalculations. After hearing about the governor’s comments, Lathrop released a statement saying he refused to be pulled into any attempt to turn the murders of four innocent people into a political issue.

Heineman said he was “very disappointed” with Lathrop’s comments, saying they indicated he’s already decided the outcome of the investigation by blaming the corrections department. He accused Ashford and Lathrop of wanting to bury the good time issue.

Photo by Nebraska Watchdog

Sen. Steve Lathrop

“I haven’t seen any conversation in that committee about good time,” he said. “They don’t want to talk about it because then all of Nebraska will know what they did.”

The governor said if the good time law weren’t in effect, Jenkins would have been imprisoned until at least 2021.

Prison officials can also dock good time if prisoners misbehave, but Jenkins only lost a year-and-a-half of good time even though he assaulted a guard while on furlough, helped incite a prison riot, attacked inmates and participated in gang activities while imprisoned.

The governor acknowledged prison staffers made some mistakes, but said automatic good time, not administrative docking of good time, is the real issue. Docking Jenkins’ sentence by days, weeks or months paled in comparison to repealing the good time law, doubling Jenkins’ time in prison, he said.

Lawmakers on Lathrop’s committee see it differently.

Sen. Bob Krist, R-Omaha, denounced the mud-slinging by Terry’s campaign last week.

Sen. Kate Bolz, D-Lincoln, said so far she’s heard troubling things about the lack of access to treatment programs for prisoners. Jenkins, for example, jammed out of prison before getting treatment or being paroled.

“Certainly there’s a conversation to be had about good time and what’s appropriate and what’s fair,” she said. “The bigger question is what could’ve been done to provide him treatment, programming and oversight.”

Sen. Heath Mello, D-Omaha, said it’s abundantly clear that all of the prison scandals are the result of mismanagement by the department of corrections and repercussions of prison crowding. He was shocked to hear corrections employees withheld Jenkins’ mental health reports showing he was mentally ill when a county prosecutor looked into committing him.

Nebraska Watchdog file photo

Sen. Heath Mello

Mello also noted that when he asked former corrections director Bob Houston whether prison officials were hesitant to dock good time due to prison crowding, Houston said, “That’s a fair statement.”

Mello also noted he and Ashford urged the governor last year to increase the amount of good time that can be docked through administrative changes. That was done one year ago.

Good time will be examined as part of an in-depth prison study, Mello said.

Sen. Paul Schumacher, R-Columbus, said he’s not sure good time was a factor in the Jenkins case. Testimony so far has indicated the problem was Jenkins was locked in solitary for years before his release, and corrections employees did nothing to get him committed even though they had ample evidence he was mentally ill and dangerous, he said.

“There was just clearly a miscarriage of common sense,” he said. “He was released into the public when staff members, psychologists… all those people were afraid of him.”

He chalked up the whole blame game to politics, and the election next month.

“My sense is that the committee has a great deal of respect for the work that Senator Lathrop has done,” Schumacher said.

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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