State government reporter

JoAnne Young covers state government, including the Legislature and state agencies, and the people they serve.

Bryan Stevenson spends a lot of his time in jails and prisons, and with inmates on death row, and he has ideas borne of those places and the people he sees there as part of his legal practice, Equal Justice Initiative.

The author of the best-selling book, "Just Mercy," and recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Foundation genius grant, brought some of those ideas to a Nebraska Wesleyan symposium this month. 

He recited the statistics about the large numbers of people locked up in this country. 

In 1972, the number was 300,000. In 2017, it has climbed to 2.3 million people. Six million people are on probation or parole, and 70 million Americans have criminal arrest records, which means when they try to get jobs or loans, they are hindered by their criminal history. 

Nebraska also has imposing statistics. In 1972, the state housed 952 in its prisons. Ten years later, that number had nearly doubled, with 1,759 sitting in prisons designed for 1,095.

By fiscal year 2017, 35 years later, the population is at 5,343. Prisons are overcrowded, and 1,258 men and women are on parole.  

The number of women sentenced to prison has drastically increased, many of them single mothers whose children are then displaced. 

"The United States has become the most punitive society on the planet," Stevenson told a full Wesleyan University auditorium. 

Prison crowding is a "tremendous problem" in this country, he said. And the most effective way to deal with it is to reduce the numbers, and to begin talking more honestly about rehabilitation, correction and restorative justice principles. 

He made a bold statement: The prison population in Nebraska could be reduced by half without risk to public safety.

"You have so many people in jails and prisons who are not a threat to public safety. They're there for drug crimes. They're there for nonviolent crimes. They're there because of disabilities," he said.  

Stevenson went further. There's probably not a warden in the state, he said, who couldn't identify dozens or hundreds of people in their prisons who could be released tomorrow without a negative effect on public safety. 

Gov. Pete Ricketts might have been thunderstruck by those words. He has been steadfast in his opposition to any early release of prisoners, citing public safety. 

Many of those Stevenson is talking about are people convicted of drug crimes and nonviolent offenses. 

"We have mass incarceration in this country because we decided to treat people with drug addiction and drug dependency as criminals," he said.

What if drug abusers were considered to have a health problem or disorder, as alcoholics are, rather than to be lawbreakers? And what if the health care system could respond to addiction and dependency, instead of the criminal justice system, he asked.

Attempts are being made in the Legislature to reform sentencing so more offenders, in particular nonviolent ones, can be rerouted from prison to probation, or to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for some drug crimes. 

Prosecutors have opposed eliminating or limiting mandatory minimums. 

The ACLU of Nebraska has sued the prisons on behalf of inmates due to overcrowded conditions and inadequate health care. If successful, that could lead to a forced reduction in population. And Omaha Sen. Bob Krist has promised to introduce a bill in January to force a declaration of an emergency over prison crowding. 

Lincoln Sen. Mike Hilgers, also an attorney, and a member of the Legislature's Nebraska Justice System Special Oversight Committee, visited some of the state's prisons this summer. That tour, in which committee members got to hear from corrections officers and inmates, was eye-opening, he said. 

There's a growing bipartisan consensus, he said, that incarceration strategies should be reconsidered, not only in Nebraska but across the country. And that would pertain especially to low-level drug crimes.

But he is not ready to say it would be easy to know who could be safely and quickly released back to their communities.  

Even the professionals -- wardens, judges, probation officers -- would have a hard time determining that, Hilgers speculated.  

There's a lot that goes into distinguishing those inmates, including their mental health history, drug abuse history and what programs and supports are needed for them to succeed. 

Hilgers, instead, is putting his faith in the sentencing reforms (LB605) of the past couple of years, even though he knows they are taking awhile to impact the prison population. Over time, they should reduce the number of inmates, he said. 

He would like to see the sentencing reforms deepen and harden, and see those results before the state is put in a position of releasing inmates or building prisons to reduce crowding. 

Regardless of the lawsuit, the Legislature has enough internal pressure to do the right thing. 

"We've got urgency," he said. 

Stevenson doesn't seem convinced.  

Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or

On Twitter @LJSLegislature.


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