Increases in Nebraska's inmate population could mean an increase of about $17 million in the next two-year budget.

Admissions have outpaced releases in the past two years, despite an effort that put 448 more prisoners on parole in 2010-12. Consequently, the cost for food, medical care, staffing and other related expenses have gone up, state Corrections Director Bob Houston told the Legislature's Appropriations Committee on Wednesday.

Increased admissions and longer sentences hindered the attempt to decrease the population, he said. The actual number of inmates in 2011-12 was 4,609, nearly 600 more than the projected decrease, Houston said.

"It just continues to grow," he said. "You know, you can't put your finger on any particular (reason), but what we do know is more people are coming."

Gov. Dave Heineman has recommended an increase in the Department of Correctional Services' 2013-14 budget of $7.8 million in general funds and an increase of $9 million in 2014-15, excluding employee salary adjustments. The Appropriations Committee preliminary budget comes close to that recommendation.

Some of the increase would restore funding to staff housing units at the Nebraska State Penitentiary that couldn't be closed and to reopen a unit at the Omaha Correctional Center that closed in 2011. It also would restore treatment and other staff associated with the previous projected decrease in inmates.

"These staff positions are needed as the increased inmate population has put a strain on providing necessary services," Houston told the committee.

In the past 10 years, the number of inmates older than 50 has doubled. And the expenses associated with older inmates are double those for younger ones, Houston said.

Right now, the prisons are 1,400 inmates past capacity.

Because the department expects the increase in inmates to continue, it also has asked for $585,000 in the next budget to develop a facilities master plan. The plan would include projections for inmate populations and needs for existing prisons, as well as for any new ones.

Before the department would seek a new prison, it would go through a study required by law to look at alternatives to construction, including parole options and partnerships for housing. 

One bit of help would be a bill (LB313) introduced by Sen. Mark Christensen that would give the Corrections Department the ability to ensure the most appropriate inmates are placed at the Work Ethic Camp in McCook and that it is used to the fullest extent.

The study would show the type of prison needed and its size and special needs of inmates, Houston said.

Doug Hanson, facilities engineering manager, said the last time the department did such a study was 2005-06.

"Everything should be done that can be done before we build. That's the primary consideration," he said.

A program statement of any construction and operation costs then would have to be approved by the governor and the Legislature, he said.

"We have more work to do," Houston said of solving overcrowding issues. "And that's going to go parallel to the update of the master plan. So we'll continue to collaborate with the Parole Board and continue to work with probation."

Houston said the prisons have good security, and inmates are, for the most part, cooperative. 

"But there's only so much crowding you can do. You kind of get to that saturation point," he said.

Reach JoAnne Young at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com. You can follow JoAnne's tweets at twitter.com/ljslegislature.