Frakes: State Probably Will Miss Deadline to Cut Prison Overcrowding

Jan. 18, 2019, 3:56 p.m. ·

Nebraska Corrections Director Scott Frakes testifies Friday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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Corrections Director Scott Frakes said Friday it’s unlikely Nebraska’s prison overcrowding will be cut to the level required by law next year. And in the Legislature, taxes, dogs, cats, and redistricting were all subjects of discussion.

Nebraska law requires state prisons must hold no more than 40 percent more prisoners than they were designed to by next year, or the Parole Board will have to start considering releasing more people to relieve the emergency. They’re currently about 56 percent over design capacity. Gov. Pete Ricketts has requested another 384 prison beds be constructed, but they won’t be ready for four years, and they alone won’t be enough.

In a briefing Friday, Sen. Steve Lathrop asked Corrections Director Scott Frakes about reaching the 40 percent goal by next year’s deadline. “Are we going to make it? Do you have a plan or can you tell us how we’re going to get to that place, because we seem to be heavy even if we put these facilities on line,” Lathrop said.

“Absent a reversal in the number of people coming in vs. the number of people leaving, no, I don’t expect we’re going to be below 140 percent by July 1 of 2020,” Frakes replied.

Asked what the Legislature could do to help, Frakes said senators should approve his budget request, and said his department is working to make people eligible for parole earlier.

But he repeated it’s doubtful the deadline will be met, leading some senators to express concern for public safety if prisoners are released before they’re ready.

Frakes said he was not recommending next year’s deadline be changed. How to handle the situation is likely to be an important topic in the rest of this year’s legislative session.

Meanwhile, Sen. Mike Groene introduced a bill that would change the way school finance works. Groene said his proposal would affect schools in cities, like Lincoln and Omaha, that use a lot of tax increment financing to promote development by taking property off the tax rolls. He said that results in a subsidy. “Less taxes are collected for the school system, and then everybody in the state – all of the income and sales tax payers, are making that up for that school district,” he said.

Groene said his proposal would change how tax increment-financed property is valued in the school aid formula. “The bill will put the tax increment-financed valuations back into the total, and because the school district had no say in what the city did in giving away their tax base through TIF, they have the authority then to raise their levy above the max, to make that up,” he said.

A proposal dealing with dogs and cats was introduced by Sen. Suzanne Geist. It would require pet shops to maintain records at least a year after selling an animal showing where the pet came from. And it would prohibit selling dogs who the seller knows were produced by in-breeding or line-breeding a dog with its own parent or offspring.

Geist said she believes in local control, but wants to replace what she called a patchwork of local laws on the subject, to promote a goal. “Whenever you visit a pet shop or a pet store in any town in the state of Nebraska, you can be assured that you get a healthy pet,” she said.

Also Friday, Sen. Sara Howard introduced a proposal on how the Legislature should handle redistricting following the 2020 Census. Her bill would require any proposed redistricting maps to be generated using state software and computers, so no one could go to an outside party and generate a map to suit their political purposes.

It would also contain what she called guardrails. “Those things would be things like equal population, they wouldn’t be able to use any political affiliation. No previous voting data. You could only use data from the Census. You have to show deference to county and municipal lines. And these districts would have to be contiguous,” she said.

Howard said her proposal is modeled on a widely-praised system used in one of Nebraska’s neighboring states. “I say a lot that this looks like the Iowa model, which when people are looking at redistricting as a whole, the unicorn in the country is Iowa,” she said.

Howard said in Iowa, the state’s research office draws proposed maps, which legislators then consider. If they are rejected three times, they go to the courts, but Howard said that’s never happened.