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Protecting the public safety is a basic responsibility of state government. Protecting the safety of public employees is also a basic responsibility of administrative agencies. Unfortunately, public and employee safety has been at risk due to the functioning of the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services. This is apparent at the staff level, demonstrated by public incidents, and related to systemic challenges.

As state senators representing Lincoln and serving on the Department of Correctional Services Special Investigative Committee, we have heard personally from staff members regarding concerns about safety, job stress, overtime demands, and staffing adequacy. We have shared these concerns with Governor Pete Ricketts, and they are evident in the Nebraska Department of Correctional Service's recent culture study.

We wanted to specifically thank our correctional officer staff, who regularly put themselves in danger to protect the public. Unfortunately, they have been put in difficult circumstances. The overall stress on the system has resulted in numerous incidents ranging from employee assaults to the riot at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution to the inmate escape from the Lincoln Correctional Center. Just recently, the Nebraska State Penitentiary went under lockdown and a warning shot was fired after an inmate incident.

The Special Investigative Committee on Corrections has brought to light related systemic challenges. Our system remains overcrowded at 158.35% of capacity. Our overtime demands in Fiscal Year 2016 were significantly more than was budgeted for. The staff members are undercompensated by almost any measure - they are paid less than county jail staff in Douglas, Lancaster and Hall Counties, they are paid less than comparable staff in Iowa, and the Department lacks wage increases for longevity.

These stresses have resulted, appropriately, in scrutiny of the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services. Action has been taken, ranging from staffing and culture analysis to short term investments in retention strategies to the individual sacrifices of workers willing to put in long hours. Many people are working very hard to protect public and employee safety. The two problems at the heart of the issue: overcrowding and understaffing, are not easy to solve.

However, it is clear that more action must be taken, and quickly.

First, and most urgently, we must retain our existing workforce and recruit more. This year, the Legislature made an investment in retention efforts by appropriating $1.5 million dollars for these purposes. The Department has started to use these funds but more must be done. It is the responsibility of the Department of Correctional Services to ensure the safety and stability of their workforce. Immediate action could include merit bonuses, limiting overtime, and, if necessary, continuing to use the county jail program to alleviate overcrowding. The Department and the Governor may initiate a deficit request related to funding these items if needed.

Second, the upcoming budget request from the Department of Corrections must address overcrowding issues, including programming, facilities, and staffing. 192 individuals are parole eligible, but on a waiting list for programming. There is a significant backlog of deferred maintenance. And we need to both fill vacant officer staff positions and add new frontline staffing positions. While it will be a difficult budget session, we cannot manage our state’s limited resources unless priorities are clearly defined.

Third, both the representatives of the Ricketts Administration and the Unions must sit down at the negotiating table with real ideas for addressing the problems of overtime, understaffing, and fair compensation. While state law has clear requirements for negotiating timeframes beginning this fall, there is nothing preventing negotiations from moving forward as quickly as possible, with both sides working together to solve these problems - it is in the best interest of all involved that they do.

The Special Investigative Committee on Corrections will continue to work to develop strategies to better serve the safety interests of the public and to address these issues. We have already invested resources in community corrections facilities, behavioral health staffing, and other efforts.

There are also duties and strategies that are the responsibility of Governor Ricketts and members of his administration, including going to the negotiating table with ideas for action, directing the Department of Correctional services to take swift action to retain experienced correctional officers and recruit new staff members, and to develop a budget that addresses needs related to staffing, programming, and facilities.

We all need to do our part - the safety of the citizens of Nebraska is at stake.

Sen. Kate Bolz represents Legislative District 29 in Lincoln. Also signing this column are Sen. Colby Coash, District 27, Adam Morfeld, District 46 and Patty Pansing Brooks, District 28.

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