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Prison Oversight

Nebraska Corrections Director Scott Frakes testifies at a legislative hearing concerning the prisons system in 2017.

When a state law kicks into effect in the summer of 2020, it's doubtful the state prisons will meet the prescribed goal of getting the inmate population below 140 percent of design capacity, the state Department of Correctional Services director told state senators Friday. 

"Absent a reversal on the number of people coming in versus the number of people leaving, no, I don't expect that we're going to be below 140 percent by July 1, 2020," Director Scott Frakes said while briefing the Legislature's Judiciary Committee and other interested senators. 

The law says if the prisons' population is certified at more than 140 percent beginning July 1 next year or after that, an emergency will exist. If that happens, the Nebraska Board of Parole must consider which prisoners can be safely paroled to get the prison population down to operational capacity.

That could be a large number of inmates. 

As of Friday, the prisons housed 5,407 inmates, with 110 more in some of the state's county jails. Design capacity is 3,435.

With the current numbers, the population would need to go down by more than 700 inmates, said Judiciary Committee Chairman Steve Lathrop. 

New beds that are being built or that are planned to be built, and more programming space to prepare inmates for parole, won't be done in time to meet the 2020 deadline, Frakes said. 

Nebraska lawmakers and Gov. Pete Ricketts have worked with national consultants, increased funding for prisons and passed several major laws designed to reduce crowding. Those moves may have kept the population from increasing more dramatically, but haven't brought the number of inmates down much.

The state also is embroiled in a lawsuit brought by the ACLU of Nebraska alleging those in charge have not provided adequate medical and mental health care to inmates, exacerbated by crowding and staffing shortages.

Since Frakes arrived in 2015, 420 new beds have been approved, he said, along with a reception and treatment center with critical health care beds, and expansion and renovation of core support functions.

The governor's two-year budget proposal for 2019-21 has about $49 million planned for 384 high-security beds for more difficult-to-manage inmates. 

Frakes said lengthy sentences seem to be driving the current increase in population. 

"We've got people with us today that will still be with us in 2030, 2040. We have 800 or 900 who will still be with us in 2030, and that number is growing," he said. 

When asked what the department's plan is to get the crowding down, Frakes said it has improved shortening the time it takes to get inmates assessed when they arrive, and improved infrastructure and planning for inmates to parole and re-enter society, Frakes said. 

"We're going to do everything we can to make sure our systems give everybody the opportunity, but there are a number of other factors when it comes to parole that are certainly out of our control," he said. 

He said he could not imagine the Board of Parole making decisions that would put inmates out into communities if they would put the public at risk. 

"I don't see that as one of the outcomes for this," he said. 

Multiple senators asked Frakes what the Legislature could do to help ease the crowding and get the capacity down. 

Lathrop said after the briefing the only thing he heard Frakes suggest was for senators to support the department's budget request and know that it is progressing, improving in some areas and trying to come up with other strategies. 

The Legislature would do what it could if someone would advise it on what would be helpful, Lathrop said.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSLegislature.

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State government reporter

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

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