Governor switches course on ‘good time’

By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog

LINCOLN, Neb. – While the governor is a huge proponent of making it harder for state prisoners to get “good time” that shaves away their sentences, three years ago he signed a bill that made it easier for prisoners to get even more good time than they were already automatically getting.

GOOD TIME: The governor is vehement about making it harder for Nebraska prisoners to get “good time” but three years ago, he signed a bill making it easier.

In the wake of major prison overcrowding problems and a string of tragedies involving prisoners and ex-cons, Gov. Dave Heineman has changed course on good time. Lawmakers, however, have on more comprehensive prison reforms, specifically a $14 million bill now winding its way through the Legislature. The debate has gotten heated at times, with the governor insinuating those who don’t agree with him are soft on crime.

In 2011, both the governor and lawmakers went along with the prison system’s proposal to make it easier for prisoners to shave time off their sentences.

Back then, Omaha Sen. Brenda Council introduced a bill on behalf of the Corrections Department that increased the amount of good time prisoners could get if they followed prison rules and completed treatment programs.

In addition to the good time inmates were already getting – which automatically cuts their sentences in half — Council’s bill allowed the corrections department to reduce prison terms by another three days per month to reward good behavior, save money and ease prison crowding.

“I’ll call it earned time, but it’s actually increasing good time,” Council told the Judiciary Committee in 2011.

BAD TIME: Omaha Sen. Brad Ashford thinks it’d be a bad time to make it harder for prisoners to earn good time.

But the governor has changed his tune in the wake of a case where Nikko Jenkins allegedly killed four people within 10 days after being released in July, despite multiple warnings that he was dangerous. Jenkins lost some good time, but could have stayed in prison nine more months if he’d lost the maximum possible.

While lawmakers have focused on getting prisoners like Jenkins mental health and other treatment, Heineman has focused on a bill that would make prisoners earn their time off versus automatically awarded good time. He says other reforms should wait for recommendations from the Council of State Governments, which is examining the prison system.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Brad Ashford, D-Omaha, said when the prison system was at about 140 percent over capacity in 2009, lawmakers started asking Corrections Director Bob Houston how to manage the population. That led to Council’s bill.

Ashford opposes taking away good time, saying it’s a tool prisons use to control population.

“I know the governor’s reaching out for some kind of quick solution,” Ashford said in an interview.

He said good time had nothing to do with the Jenkins case.

“Using him as an example of why we should make good time tougher when we just made it easier makes no sense,” Ashford said.

Asked why he made good time easier to get just three years ago, the governor said it was Houston’s idea to help ease overcrowding.

“Things have changed,” Heineman said, citing the Jenkins case.

Was it a mistake to ease good time three years ago? No, the governor said.

“We need to be dynamic in how we look at a variety of issues,” he said. “You can’t lock yourself into one strategy.”

Houston resigned in September, in the wake of a string of fatal incidents involving prisoners and ex-cons.

Contact Deena Winter at deena@nebraskawatchdog.org. 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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