Nebraska prison chief says Lathrop’s bill on overcrowding won’t solve the problem

LINCOLN — Nebraska has possibly supplanted Alabama at No. 1 — not in college football, but in having the most overcrowded prison system in the nation.

That news Wednesday came as Nebraska’s prison chief testified against the Legislature’s most recent attempt to help.

First the overcrowding. State Corrections Director Scott Frakes said the state’s long-overcrowded prisons held 5,502 inmates on Wednesday morning, which would put the system at 162.5 percent of design capacity.

Alabama has been No. 1 in prison overcrowding — a distinction that has federal judges ordering the state to build new prisons. On Dec. 31, the state’s prisons were at 163.4 percent of capacity, but just last month, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said the figure had dropped to “approximately 160 percent.”

A more current figure for prison overcrowding in Alabama was not available Wednesday evening, but the possibility that Nebraska now ranks first in prison overcrowding rang a loud alarm bell for a state legislative committee that, once again, was seeking answers on what the state plans to do.

State Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, a veteran of studies into state prison problems, explained his proposal to provide a “softer landing” for Corrections in dealing with a state “prison overcrowding emergency” law that requires overcrowding to be reduced to 140 percent of capacity — potentially by releasing hundreds of inmates — by July 2020.

Frakes has said he doubts that the department can reach the 140 percent mark, which is recognized by federal courts as the threshold at which court intervention is needed.

Under Lathrop’s Legislative Bill 686, the Corrections Department would get another six months — until Jan. 1, 2021 — to reduce the prison overcrowding to 135 percent and then get until Jan. 1, 2022, to reduce it to 125 percent, which is recognized as a manageable level. Under current law, the State Parole Board would be required to take “immediate action” 15 months from now to release parole-eligible inmates to lower overcrowding to 125 percent of capacity.

But Frakes told the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee that setting “additional arbitrary benchmarks that are not possible to attain” won’t help ease prison overcrowding. He also said he hopes that the state can redefine that overcrowding isn’t just the number of beds, but its “operational capacity” to feed and handle inmates.

He said his agency is investigating why the state’s prison population has unexpectedly risen in recent months, and he asked senators to support Gov. Pete Ricketts’ request to build a 384-bed prison addition in Lincoln, costing $49 million.

That expense is a far cry from Alabama, which has proposed building three new prisons at a cost of $900 million, as well as improving pay and doubling the size of its prison staff.

Frakes said that he could not say when the state might reach 140 percent of capacity but that “measures to address crowding take time, strategic planning and perseverance.”

Nebraska might hold the No. 1 title briefly — a 160-bed prison addition in Lincoln is scheduled to open Saturday, which would drop overcrowding below 160 percent.

The Judiciary Committee took no action on LB 686 on Wednesday, but Lathrop said he will use the bill to incorporate the committee’s proposals to address the problems at Corrections, which also include high turnover of staff, dozens of vacant posts and 962 inmates who are parole-eligible but, for a variety of reasons, remain in high-cost prison beds instead of lower-cost parole supervision.

Sitting in the audience Wednesday were officials of the ACLU of Nebraska, which has a federal civil rights lawsuit underway over prison overcrowding in Nebraska.

ACLU Director Danielle Conrad said that there are plenty of “smart” prison reforms the state could adopt to reduce overcrowding but that it would take “political will” that has been lacking so far. She said Frakes’ call to redefine overcrowding was like saying it was physically possible to drive a four-passenger car with 10 occupants.

Meanwhile, she said, “Nebraska remains at the top of one of the lists (prison overcrowding) we don’t want to be on top of.”