Corrections Director Scott Frakes has made a few trips to the state Capitol this winter to testify on bills and answer senators' questions on crowding in prisons.
Monday, he took a seat in front on the Appropriations Committee, which makes recommendations to the Legislature on how much money the Department of Correctional Services should get in the next two fiscal years, 2019-21.
For the committee, it was an afternoon of dissecting spending and hearing possible solutions to prison crowding, the inspector general, the Supreme Court and Board of Parole.
They heard testimony on a bill (LB625), introduced by Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, that would appropriate $5.8 million in the next year for staffing and portable buildings for programming needs for inmates to ready them for re-entry into society.
In spite of the Legislature's and courts' efforts, the number of inmates in Nebraska prisons has continued to rise in recent months, raising a system that is one of the most crowded in the nation to 160.5 percent of design capacity.
In January, the department reported 5,407 inmates, with 110 more in some of the state's county jails. Design capacity of the prisons is 3,435.
Monday, Frakes said the number had swollen to 5,515. That's packed in tight, he said, and nothing tells him there's going to be any kind of significant drop by next year, when state law requires the population be down to at least 140 percent.
If the prisons' population is certified at more than 140 percent beginning July 1 next year, the law says, an emergency will exist.
The department has focused its efforts on building more prison space.
It will open 160 new beds for women April 1 at the Community Corrections Center-Lincoln. Community custody is the lowest custody level and the least restrictive facility. Inmates are allowed to work at jobs, attend school, religious services and other pro-social activities with prior approval and without direct supervision.
On the opposite end, the department is also requesting $2.1 million in fiscal year 2019-20, $32 million the next year, and $15 million after that, to construct 384 high-security beds for prisoners who cannot be safely housed in any existing general population prison space.
Frakes said those inmates, some of them affiliated with gangs, assault others, introduce dangerous contraband, and practice high-risk behaviors. They cycle in and out of restrictive housing, sometimes called solitary confinement, with increasingly longer stays.
The new high-security housing would allow the department to offer meaningful programming, treatment and other interventions that are difficult or impossible to achieve in restrictive housing, Frakes said.
Chief Justice Mike Heavican talked to the committee during the Supreme Court's budget hearing about alternatives to incarceration to ease crowding at the prisons. Those include community corrections and probation, he said.
Capacity could be increased in probation, he told them. But he couldn't say how many more people would be eligible for probation programs.
"It's a very complex system and you have to educate everybody in the process," he said.
That includes judges and prosecutors, but the courts aren't in charge of educating prosecutors, he said.
Problem-solving courts could be increased to try to handle high-risk people who are likely to re-offend if they are not properly supervised. Those are time-intensive for judges, he said, and cost about $650,000 per court, excluding judges' salaries.
Appropriations Committee member Anna Wishart of Lincoln said she'd like to know what the committee could provide to both the judicial system and Corrections, what kind of funding it would take to put in mental health courts and more drug courts to significantly slow the number of people going into prisons, to get the population down to state law requirements coming in 2020.
Heavican said probation alternatives are less expensive than problem-solving courts.
"Substance abuse and mental health drive what is going on in our criminal justice system, hugely," Heavican said. "They are often intertwined."
Supervision of people coming out of jails and prisons is important, he said. Otherwise they are going to fail again and be back in the system in the next couple of years.
Not everyone understands the change in philosophy it takes for justice reinvestment to succeed, he said. It takes ongoing education of judges, defense attorneys, prosecutors, probation officers, parole administration and the Department of Corrections.
"Everybody has to be convinced that people can be put on probation and that the public can still be protected," Heavican told the committee.