By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog
LINCOLN, Neb. – The head of Nebraska’s parole board told lawmakers Tuesday the board has been pressured by Gov. Dave Heineman’s administration since 2008 to increase the number of prisoners paroled.
PRESSURE: The chairwoman of Nebraska’s parole board said former corrections director Bob Houston pushed the board to parole more prisoners to ease prison crowding.
She said the state corrections director pressured the board to the point it became more of an instrument of corrections rather than the independent gatekeeping agency it’s supposed to be, by law.
Esther Casmer, chairwoman of the state Parole Board, detailed the pressure that was put on her by former corrections director Bob Houston and Heineman’s chief of staff, Larry Bare. She seemed hesitant and reluctant to tell lawmakers what’s been going on behind closed doors for years — pausing, sighing heavily and wiping at her eyes – but she was subpoenaed to testify under oath before the special committee, which is investigating several prison scandals.
Casmer, who’s been appointed by governors to the parole board since 1997, said when she began serving on the board, most prisoners weren’t paroled until they completed all their programming, such as treatment for substance abuse or anger management.
But that changed around 2008, when Houston pushed to treat more parolees in the community, loosen up on parole violations and approve more paroles to get more inmates out of prison and ease crowding. She said he made it very clear he had permission from his superiors to move prisoners out more quickly.
Vouchers were available to help pay for some of parolees’ treatment in the community, but they were expected to cover most of the expense, and that becomes problematic, she said. As the number of parolees increased, so did the number of revocations, in some cases because parolees didn’t get treatment. Then parole administrators were encouraged to “work with” parolees, and give them more chances before revoking their parole, she said.
The parole board is a separate agency from the corrections department, and by law is supposed to be a neutral, but that changed under the Heineman administration as the prison population spiraled beyond capacity, she said.
“I was constantly being told by the director how many people should be paroled to keep the numbers down,” Casmer said. “No, I did not comply.”
She said Houston began stopping by her office – which is in the same building as his – almost daily, pressing her to parole more people. She was given a quota of paroling 168 people per month, about 68 more than they had been averaging. Houston turned up the heat her by reminding her he had daily conversations with the governor’s chief of staff, Bare.
“I felt pressured,” Casmer said. “We were always given what we should do, how we should do it and it just became a constant.”
She said the parole board’s role was compromised as she was pressured to be a “team player.”
“I was expected to work very closely with the Department of Corrections in order to reduce the population,” she said. “I take pride in what I do and I did not want to be viewed as someone who was not willing to cooperate although I didn’t always agree, I didn’t always do it, but that was the situation the board was placed in. We did not want to be viewed as obstinate, set in our ways.”
She occasionally met with Bare, too, where Houston often talked about closing units and decreasing the prison population and asked what she was doing to help parole more people. Then corrections began reducing the threshold for when misconduct reports were filed if an offender had drug or alcohol violations, initially deferring their hearings for six months, then reducing that to three months and finally, no sanctions until a second violation.
“I feel that we had compromised ourselves, none of us felt good about it, but this is what we were expected to do in order to attempt to resolve the situation,” she said.
Asked if her job was ever threatened, she sighed loudly, paused and then said yes, both she and her vice chairman James Pearson were threatened in Bare’s office, after Pearson expressed concerns.
“Bare told us ‘Don’t be concerned about losing your jobs for paroling people, be concerned about losing your jobs for not paroling people,’ ” Casmer said.
Casmer said the corrections system needs to adequately treat inmates before releasing them, because ex-cons often don’t have the resources to get treatment in the community, where they’re already grappling with a myriad of issues.
She also talked about how more prisoners were released before they were eligible for parole through a re-entry furlough program, which she actually suggested during a corrections brainstorming meeting to alleviate overcrowding. But she proposed that it only be open to nonviolent offenders and those within six months of being eligible for parole.
Houston took the idea and ran with it, she testified. He asked her to help him sell the idea to Douglas County judges in about 2009, and they did, promising no violent offenders would be allowed in the program.
“I gave my word and so did he,” Casmer said.
She didn’t realize violent offenders began being furloughed through the program around 2010 until a judge complained and it hit the press. That practice has since ended, she said.
“I offer my deepest apologies to the judges in Douglas County,” she said. “I never had any intentions of going against my word that I gave to them. … I’m a person of my word, and I gave it and someone else changed the oath of the promise that was given.”
In the spring of 2013, she met with Houston and Bare and told Houston to respect the boundaries between their agencies. That was the last conversation she had with him; he resigned abruptly in September 2013 after a string of fatal prison flubs.
Casmer said the parole board was put a bad position.
“We were all under stress at that time,” she said. “We were expected to make decisions concerning the public’s safety and at times, those lines became a blur to us.”
She questioned why people are being released from prison with no treatment – saying they’re leaving with the same problems they arrived with.
“We’re sending them back out broken, just like you gave them to us,” Casmer said. “I know no one wants to spend the money for programming, I’ve heard that. Spend now or we’re going to spend later.”
Casmer said she’ll be retiring “very soon,” and she’d like to leave the board operating totally independently and not required to sign off on furloughs, work releases and other programs to shuttle people through prison faster.
Senators commended Casmer for her years of service and forthrightness. Omaha Sen. Bob Krist called her “a lady of courage” and Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers praised her for fighting the good fight, keeping the faith and resisting political pressure “by steel fist or velvet glove.”
Houston has not responded to a request for comment.
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