Lawmakers will consider investigating prison problems

By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog

LINCOLN, Neb. – The Legislature’s Executive Board quickly, unanimously voted Monday to set up a special investigative committee to look into the corrections systems and why it released a prisoner who vowed to kill, and then allegedly made good on that promise by killing four people within weeks of his release.

CRY FOR HELP: Nikko Jenkins, who is charged with four counts of first degree murder, served 10 years of a 20-year sentence before being released last year.

Such a committee would have subpoena power.

Sen. Steve Lathrop, D-Omaha, sponsored the bill, saying the committee could look at the systemic problems that allowed alleged mass murderer Nikko Jenkins to be released even though he told numerous prison employees he would kill once he got out.

Lathrop called a state ombudsman’s report on how the prison system missed numerous red flags and failed to treat Jenkins “the worst thing I’ve read since I’ve been here” with the exception of the feds’ report years ago on problems at the Beatrice State Developmental Center. A special investigative committee led by Lathrop looked into the BSDC problems.

Jenkins vowed to kill people and asked to be committed to the regional center, Lathrop said, but instead he was turned loose after being in solitary confinement the last two years of his imprisonment. Lathrop wants the special committee to look at the Jenkins case, prison overcrowding and the lack of programming and mental health care in the prison system.

A legislative audit committee also voted last month to audit the prison system, given the Jenkins case and other high-profile cases involving prisoners and ex-prisoners.

“It’s too bad that a catastrophe had to occur before it could be done,” said Sen. Ernie Chambers, I-Omaha. “When there are failures in that (executive) branch, the pieces are going to be picked up by us.”

State Ombudsman Marshall Lux noted that the corrections department’s reply to his scathing 60-page report consisted of three sentences, which “tells me there are a lot of unanswered questions.”

Lux – who was accused of being soft on crime by Gov. Dave Heineman after his report defended the use of “good time” to maintain order in prison – said his report only scratched the surface of what could be learned about the prison system from the Jenkins case. Jenkins was involved in the child welfare and juvenile justice system from age 7, he said.

“What we’re likely to find out… is that there were failures as well in the juvenile justice system and in the child welfare system in addressing this young man’s issues,” Lux said. “His case is not unique.”

Chambers said the prison system’s curt response to the report illustrates the minimization and “dismissive attitude of the executive branch.”

Sen. Bob Krist, R-Omaha, seconded Chambers, saying, “I don’t like being disrespected.”

The committee unanimously voted to send the bill to the full Legislature for consideration.

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

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