Nebraska’s sentencing screw-up will cost taxpayers at least $10 million


By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog

LINCOLN, Neb. — The state prison system has estimated its sentencing screw-up will cost the state $4 million over the next decade, and another $6 million the next four decades, but the senator who requested the estimate believes that’s a lowball figure.

COUNTING THE COST: The Nebraska prison system has estimated the cost of its sentencing screwup at $4 million over the next decade, $10 million over the next 50 years.

Last month, the Omaha World-Herald reported the state prison system has been incorrectly calculating sentences, letting prisoners out too early and disregarding 2002 and 2013 state Supreme Court sentencing rulings. Prison employees didn’t require inmates to serve their mandatory sentence before earning “good time,” which basically cuts their sentences in half.

Prison officials began recalculating sentences of prisoners with mandatory minimum sentences, and Corrections Director Michael Kenney said in his letter to lawmakers those recalculations resulted in 567 inmates getting longer sentences. But he said many of those revised sentences will have no impact on the department because while the prisoner might get another 10 years tacked onto his sentence, he would have been 215 years old by then.

To calculate the fiscal impact, the department used the average lifespan of a Nebraskan, 75 years, even though prisoners often have more health issues. Using that cutoff, by the end of the next decade, 644 years will have been tacked onto sentences at a cost of $4.1 million. The average length of time added will be 2.8 years. From 2024 to 2064, the fiscal impact was projected at nearly $6 million, according to Kenney.

However, he noted the fiscal impact was calculated using an annual cost of $6,422 and without assuming additional housing would have to be built due to the longer sentences.

Omaha Sen. Heath Mello, the Appropriations Committee chairman, asked for the estimate of the cost of the blunder. It took so long for prison officials to respond he finally started prodding them via Twitter, writing last week it was “Day 23” and still no answers from the governor or corrections.

He finally got his answer Friday, but believes corrections officials gave him a lowball estimate.

The corrections department publishes a data sheet that says the average cost of housing an inmate is $26,000 annually, but the department estimated for every year they’ll have to tack onto prisoners’ sentences would cost $6,422. That’s the “per diem rate” for things like food and supplies, but doesn’t take into account staffing.

“They’re trying to whitewash their scandal,” Mello said Friday.

He released a statement later that day saying, “The only conclusion I can come to is that the Department of Correctional Services is trying to whitewash their mistakes away by telling taxpayers it will only cost them only $4 million instead of the estimated $20 million using the average inmate costs published last month.”

Mello said he finds it ironic that Gov. Dave Heineman has dogged federal officials for refusing to give him information about the identity and whereabouts of 214 unaccompanied migrant children that have been placed in Nebraska since October, “when I’m waiting a month to get information on the biggest public safety scandal in years.”

“Here I am having to tweet every day until the Department of Corrections feels they have to do something about it,” Mello said. “They’re trying to change the subject and talk about illegal immigration.”

Kenney said the sentence recalculations will only slightly increase prison overcrowding. The prison population was previously expected to hit 166 percent of capacity by 2024, and “that increases slightly” if no legislative changes are made to impact admissions, Kenney said in his letter to lawmakers.

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