Nebraska prisons head says overcrowding emergency is likely

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska is likely to face a prison overcrowding emergency next year that will force state officials to consider releasing all eligible inmates, a prospect some lawmakers fear would endanger the public.

Nebraska corrections director Scott Frakes acknowledged Friday that his department will probably fail to meet a mandatory deadline to reduce the state's prison population by July 1, 2020, triggering the emergency.

Frakes said prison officials have more work to do after members of a legislative committee repeatedly asked him if he believed the goal was still attainable.

"Based on the current population, it's doubtful," Frakes said to the Legislature's Judiciary Committee.

The deadline imposed by the Legislature requires the Department of Correctional Services to lower its inmate population to 140 percent of what its facilities were designed to hold. If the department falls short of that target, the prisons will fall into an automatic "overcrowding emergency" that will force state officials to consider paroling all eligible inmates right away.

Lawmakers set the deadline as part of a 2015 prison reform package to hold the corrections department accountable in its efforts to reduce prison crowding. The package was designed to reduce the number of inmates by placing more emphasis on parole and rehabilitation, but it hasn't yet produced all the desired results.

As of last month, Nebraska's prison overcrowding was worse than when lawmakers approved the 2015 reform package. The prisons housed 5,338 inmates in facilities that were designed to hold 3,375, placing the population at roughly 158 percent of its design capacity, according to the Department of Correctional Services.

Sen. Steve Lathrop, chairman of the Legislature's Judiciary Committee, said he was concerned that state officials will end up "staring at an emergency" if they don't act now to release more inmates in a safe, controlled manner.

"Tell us what you need, because this is a concern," said Lathrop, of Omaha.

The law allows parole board members to deny parole if they believe inmates pose a "very substantial" risk of violence or are deemed likely to violate parole.

Frakes said he takes the issue seriously and promised he and his staff will "do everything we can" to reduce the inmate population. But he gave lawmakers no recommendations other than approving the budget request Gov. Pete Ricketts unveiled last week on his behalf.

The request seeks $49 million for two new high-security units at the Lincoln Correctional Center, which Frakes said would help relieve overcrowding by adding space for 384 new beds. Construction likely wouldn't be complete until 2023 at the earliest — two years past the deadline.

Frakes said the new units would allow corrections officials to place the state's most dangerous inmates in one central location in Lincoln, where they'd be less likely to cause problems that make it harder to rehabilitate other prisoners. High-security inmates are currently housed at the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln and the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution, a facility in rural southeast Nebraska that struggles to fill job openings.

Sen. Wendy DeBoer, of Omaha, said the longer-term approach is good but voiced concern that prison officials aren't doing enough to address the immediate problem.

"I feel a little bit like we're in a house that's on fire, and we're installing fireproof tiles," she said.

Frakes said some factors that fed the overcrowding are beyond his control, including a small percentage of inmates who refuse to participate in rehabilitative programs. Corrections officials also have no influence over the number of inmates that are sent to their facilities, he said.

Nebraska Board of Parole Chairwoman Rosalyn Cotton has said her board is working to release as many parole-eligible inmates as possible, but doesn't want to compromise public safety just to meet the deadline.

Sen. Kate Bolz, of Lincoln, said lawmakers may also want to look at state agencies outside of corrections, such as parole, probation and the court system, to help reduce the inmate population.

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