Agreement by the Council of State Governments to come to Nebraska raises hopes that the Legislature could make significant progress on prison reform.
The state's prison system already is at about 150 percent of capacity and is projected to reach 188 percent by 2020.
One way to cope with the rising population is to build more prisons, which is an expensive proposition. The 960-bed prison at Tecumseh, which opened in 2001, cost $74 million.
Just as important, however, are the costs of staffing a prison. It costs about $29,000 per year to house an inmate. Spending on corrections in Nebraska went from $38 million in 1988 to $156 million in 2011. Correction officials recently requested an additional $12.6 million over two years to handle the overflow.
The Justice Center of the Council on State Governments thinks there is a better way.
Under its “justice reinvestment” approach, officials collect and use data about offenders to better assess the risk of an offender committing a new crime.
More money is allocated into drug treatment and mental health services. Parole and probation services are beefed up.
And rather than sending inmates back to prison for parole violations, some state have instituted other sanctions, such as a few days in jail or community service, for minor and technical transgressions.
The Council on State Governments said in a recent report that Texas has saved $1.5 billion in construction costs and $340 million in annual operating costs by adopting “justice reinvestment” policies.
Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha and other leaders in the prison reform effort in Nebraska will meet with representatives from the council Nov. 13-15. In the first phase of implementing the new concepts, officials analyze state-specific data on crime and re-offending, and they use the data to develop policies that shift spending on corrections to other programs that improve public safety. In the next phase those policies are put into practice, monitored and adjusted as needed.
Studies have linked the growth in prison populations to longer sentences and higher rates of incarceration for nonviolent crimes. A study by the Pew Center showed that the average time served in Nebraska prisons for drug offenses rose by 8 percent from 1990 to 2009.
State officials say a new prison in Nebraska would cost at least $120 million and probably would be at capacity the day it opened.
The success of the “justice reinvestment” approach in other states suggests that by adopting different policies, Nebraska could do a better job of identifying the criminals who need to be kept behind bars and those who might be able to make it on the outside if they have some support. Nebraska's prison reformers are on the right path.