A judge gave a Lincoln man a rare chance on probation Thursday for an attempted bank robbery, saying he wouldn't send the 24-year-old — or anyone else — to the state's Work Ethic Camp because all they learn there "is how to be a criminal."
Lancaster County District Judge Steven Burns' criticism of the camp, originally meant as an alternative to prison solely for people on probation for committing felonies, came at Brett Dovel's sentencing.
On Feb. 9, Dovel walked into a Union Bank branch at 1300 N. 48th St. in Lincoln at about 11:30 a.m. with a black scarf covering part of his face and told a teller to give him a bundle of $100s and $20s.
When Dovel turned to go, a 28-year-old customer grabbed a fire extinguisher from the wall, blocked the door and said he wasn't going to leave.
The customer wrestled Dovel to the floor, knocking a folding pocket knife out of his pocket and held him down until police arrived.
Dovel later pleaded guilty to attempted robbery, his first felony conviction.
"I'm sorry for what I did," he said in court Thursday. "It was a bad decision, what I did."
Deputy County Public Defender Kristi Egger-Brown said Dovel had been struggling with money problems and having a hard time finding work.
"It's a sad situation when a young man ... gets in his head this is the way to solve it," she said.
She said Dovel was "hoping against hope" to get probation and time at the Work Ethic Camp at McCook, where he hoped to get the help he needs in finding employment and making good decisions.
But Burns said he wouldn't send anyone to the camp because people he has sent there on intensive supervised probation have ended up violating it after having problems with inmates being housed at the camp instead of in prison.
“The only thing they learn is how to be a criminal,” the judge said. “Therefore, that option is no longer available, as I feel it is detrimental rather than beneficial.”
Authorized by the Legislature in 1997 as one way to reduce prison overcrowding, the work camp program was designed for adult offenders to take part in the camp's four- to six-month rehabilitation program while on probation.
Asked to respond to the judge's comments, corrections spokeswoman Dawn-Renee Smith said inmates have been doing time at the camp for nearly six years.
"Due to low usage by probationers back in 2007, a bill was introduced (and passed) to allow NDCS inmates to be assigned to the Work Ethic Camp," she said.
Smith said she doesn't know the numbers or whether more inmates have been sent there recently.
According to the Corrections Department website, the camp's mission is to provide a highly structured treatment environment and reduce the risk of recidivism by helping offenders change their behavior and get back into the community under close supervision.
In the courtroom Thursday, Burns said bank robbery is an extraordinarily serious offense but noted that no one was injured or threatened in Dovel's case.
"Typically, there are weapons and threats and violence that go with it," he said. "This is a very unique case."
Then he put Dovel on probation for five years, the longest he could, plus 180 days in jail. But he warned him that this was an opportunity, and he'll need to toe the line.
"If you violate, you'll be right back in front of me," Burns said.
And if that happens, he made it clear Dovel likely would go to prison.