Judiciary Committee Chairman Steve Lathrop, who has expressed abundant concern about the condition of the state's prisons since returning to the Legislature, said Wednesday the committee will develop legislation to address the crowding crisis. 

Lathrop introduced a bill that would allow a more gradual reduction of the prison population beginning in July 2020, stepping down the definition of an overcrowding emergency from being more than 140 percent from July to December the first year, to 135 percent in the six months after that, 130 percent in the second half of 2021, and 125 percent beginning Jan. 1, 2022. 

The bill (LB686), he said, could be developed by the committee as a way to enact policy from various other bills that have been introduced this session to address overcrowding and understaffing at the prisons. 

The prisons are collectively at more than 160 percent of design capacity, and some individual prisons are significantly higher than that, Lathrop said. And that has wide-ranging effects.

Inspector General for Corrections Doug Koebernick said the prisons would have to release more than 1,200 prisoners to get to 125 percent of capacity. Tuesday, the Diagnostic and Evaluation Center in Lincoln was at 327 percent capacity, designed for 160 prisoners and populated with 523. The Nebraska State Penitentiary, also in Lincoln, is at 187 percent capacity, and the women's prison in York is at 199 percent.  

Department of Correctional Services Director Scott Frakes opposed Lathrop's bill, saying the department and the Board of Parole each have plans to respond to an overcrowding emergency. In addition, he has requests in to the Appropriations Committee for money for inmate programs to ensure that men and women are ready for release. 

The department has added more space for inmates, and will add more beds in Lincoln prisons in 2020 and 2021. In addition, it has requested funding for 384 more for high-risk, maximum-security inmate beds for the penitentiary. 

Frakes said the impact of ballooning population has resulted in 932 inmates reaching or passing their parole eligibility dates as of March 17. And even if all were released today, the prisons would still be at 135 percent capacity. 

"Creating additional arbitrary benchmarks that are not possible to attain within described time frames will do nothing to improve our prison system," he told the committee about Lathrop's bill. "Measures to address crowding take time, strategic planning and perseverance."

Lathrop said talking about the state building its way out of the crisis is a distraction. 

"No one is going to spend that money. We can't staff the places we have right now," he said. "So we have to come up with some policy approach, and we need to spend the money inside the place."

The Legislature has authorized the money to fill the department's staffing vacancies, but the executive branch won't raise the salaries sufficiently to hire and keep staff, he said. 

Lathrop said he would work with Gov. Pete Ricketts if he's interested in providing a path to address the overcrowding and meet the 2020 deadline.

His bill that brings down the population gradually is meant to help keep the prisons from drifting back up to higher levels once the capacity is reduced, he said. 

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

On Twitter @LJSLegislature.

State government reporter

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