Omaha Community Corrections Proposal Rejected; African American Commission Advances

March 11, 2020, 6:05 p.m. ·

Sen. Steve Lathrop debating prisons Wednesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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The Nebraska Legislature on Wednesday rejected a proposal to build a $52 million community corrections facility in Omaha, despite warnings that the state’s overcrowded prisons are in crisis. And lawmakers gave first-round approval to a new Commission on African American Affairs.

Nebraska’s prisons were designed to hold just over 3,500 people. Last year, they held nearly 5,400, putting them at 152 percent of capacity.

Sen. Steve Lathrop is proposing to build a 300-bed community corrections work release facility in Omaha, costing $52 million, to relieve pressure on the prisons. He said it’s a good way to transition prisoners back into the community.

“This isn't about a bunch of prisoners people don't care about. This is about 90% of them are coming back to our community. We want them reformed. We want them not to reoffend. Community Corrections affords them an opportunity to do work release before they get out. They pay rent. They pay money into the victims’ reparation fund when they work. This is an important piece of a thoughtful approach,” Lathrop said.

Lathrop said his fellow senators aren’t paying enough attention to prison overcrowding or his proposal.

“We have a crisis, and everybody can't wait till we get this thing off of here so we can get on to property tax relief,” he said.

Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks underscored that argument.

“We have an emergency being called in July -- July 2020. Remember? The prisons are going to have to start releasing people if we're still overcrowded, and the governor has to call a state of emergency,” Pansing Brooks said.

She was referring to a state law that says if prisons are over 140 percent of capacity on July 1, 2020, the Parole Board must order the release of prisoners eligible for parole. The law allow exceptions, including if the board determines there is a “very substantial risk” the prisoner will commit a violent act.

Sen. John McCollister supported Lathrop’s community corrections proposal, and said the Legislature also needs to reform prison sentencing laws. McCollister said Nebraska’s current approach bucks national trends.

“It defies logic. While crime rates have dropped throughout the country, felony convictions have actually increased in Nebraska. Nationally, prison populations have declined by 7% over the last decade, while Nebraska's rates have increased by 21%,” McCollister said.

Sen. Ben Hansen praised Lathrop for raising the issue. But Hansen opposed building 300 community corrections beds in Omaha.

“I just feel like maybe this probably isn't the right approach.

But I would like to see a little bit more direction -- or I want to say leadership -- but more of a prompt plan from the administration to address the Corrections problem. And so a new facility that is adequate to house the current overflow, and also the influx of inmates that we’re expecting the future I think is probably the more -- the appropriate approach,” Hansen said.

At a Feb. 5 public hearing, Corrections Director Scott Frakes opposed Lathrop’s proposal. Frakes said there aren’t enough people in prison who would qualify for community corrections to make it worthwhile.

“Yes we need to build beds – just not community custody beds…We don’t need to invest in this,” Frakes said at the hearing.

Two weeks later, Frakes announced he’d be requesting information about building new prison capacity. The Lincoln Journal Star reported the possibility of a 1,600 bed prison somewhere between Lincoln and Omaha, although a Corrections official later said the location, size, and type of facility are yet to be determined.

Wednesday, Lathrop questioned whether Gov. Pete Ricketts’ administration is serious about the proposal, adding that a 1,600-bed prison wouldn’t solve the problem.

“If it were to materialize -- and it could be nothing but complete smoke – if it were to materialize, it’s four years down the road, at best. Probably closer to five,” he said.

Sen. Rob Clements said the Legislature shouldn’t be working at cross-purposes with the Ricketts administration.

“What I see is that we aren't working together with the Department of Corrections administration. And I'd like to have seen the director be favorable towards some proposal, but we're working against what the administration is doing. It's hard for me to approve that,” Clements said.

Sen. John Stinner said the Legislature has approved adding 700 new prison beds in the last few years, including 384 beds for the state’s worst-behaving inmates at the Lincoln Correctional Center. But Stinner predicted Nebraska prisons would still hold 150 percent of their design capacity.

“The 384 beds will be just a temporary patch. We'll be back up probably over 150 (percent). We’ll still be second or first in the country (in overcrowding). We'll still be in a situation where we're not protecting the guards. We're not protecting the prisoners. We're not protecting -- which is our duty -- the safety and well-being of the people in Nebraska,” Stinner said.

Stinner said Lathrop’s proposal was part of the solution. But he added it has to compete for money with other priorities, including property tax relief and a $300 million proposal for a new hospital and teaching facility at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha to deal with national disasters.

When time came to vote, only 14 senators supported Lathrop’s proposal, eleven short of the number needed to move forward. Thirteen voted against it, and 14 senators who were present did not vote.

Also Wednesday, senators gave first-round approval to creating a new commission on African American Affairs. The bill would require the commission, along with existing commissions on Indian Affairs and Latino Americans, to study disparities between groups in areas like government contracting, health and education. Sponsoring Sen. Justin Wayne said the results of those studies could lead to some kind of action.

“That’s the point of this commission, is that we are trying to look at the disparities and come up with policy decisions and laws in the future that can help close the achievement gap, close the income gap, close the wealth gap and close the health disparities. I don’t know what that looks like today, because part of the problem is, we don’t have the data,” Wayne said.

The bill says the commission will have 14 members, who “shall be of African ancestry” and an executive director who “shall be an African American person.” Asked how that would be enforced, Wayne said it would be up to the governor to appoint the members, and the commission could also use rules and regulations. Senators voted 32-0 to give his bill first-round approval.