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Prison mirror
A security mirror is situated above a common area room on a cell block at the Nebraska State Penitentiary. (Journal Star file photo)

The Nebraska Department of Corrections is working to lower prison overcrowding by paroling up to 260 inmates in the next nine months.

The move will give prison officials a jump on lowering the department's request for funds -- something every state department and agency is looking at in the upcoming two-year budget.

The first of those inmates could leave prison in the next 20 to 30 days.

"It's no surprise that we need to make reductions, and significant reductions," said Corrections Director Bob Houston. "We have a very, very good start."

His department is moving ahead with budget reductions even if the state is unsure how much each department will be required to modify their budget requests.

Houston met with the Legislature's Judiciary Committee Friday to go over the plan. All of the Legislature's committees are meeting with departments that fall under their purview, which for the Judiciary Committee includes the courts, State Patrol, prisons, Crime Commission, parole board and the attorney general's office.

Each year, more than 300 inmates with one year or less to serve enter the prisons, and currently 100 percent of them serve their full sentences. By partnering with the parole board, the department could attempt to get more nonviolent offenders paroled by their eligibility date.

That would be one step in lowering the prison population, which has been running over capacity for a number of years. Recent statistics show nine facilities are slightly over the 140 percent capacity that by law triggers a notification to the governor.

Prisons were at 164 percent of capacity when the Tecumseh state prison was opened in 2001. Corrections officials know, however, that building another prison is not an option, even though the capacity is only three or four percentage points from where it was in 1997 when Tecumseh was funded.

Over the past decade, as politicians have gotten "tougher on crime," the Legislature has passed tougher sentencing laws and even created new crimes. Last year, it passed LB63, a wide-sweeping crime bill that enhanced penalties for offenses such as assaults and handgun or weapons possession and made producing graffiti a crime.

Capacity at seven prisons is higher than 140 percent. The Community Corrections Center in Lincoln is at 188.5 percent of capacity, and the Omaha Community Corrections Center at 183 percent.

Many of the inmates at those facilities are in work release, education release or work detail programs.

The Nebraska State Penitentiary, which houses a mixture of maximum, medium and minimum security inmates, is at 159 percent capacity.

Houston told the committee that programs at the facilities allow them to house more inmates safely.

Close to 4,500 people are in Nebraska prisons. Houston said dropping 100 inmates takes the pressure off the system, and dropping 160 more could enable the prisons to close a housing unit. That could lower the need for about 17 employees.

Every 150-160 inmates that leave saves the cost of another 15-21 employees, Houston said.

Lowering the population by 280 inmates would lower capacity to 126.5 percent and could result in closing two housing units and saving about $3 million.

Houston said that by beginning these efforts early, he hopes to avoid layoffs. The department has a high enough employee turnover rate -- 12 percent to 13 percent -- so as fewer workers are needed, everyone who wants to stay on should have a job.

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The prisons employ about 1,200 uniformed corrections officers.

Officials would like to narrow the gap between the number of inmates housed in the prisons and the number on parole, 4,458 compared to 878.

They have instituted various programs to help inmates prepare for parole and be successful once they are out. Better classification of inmates, which is research-based, and better evaluation methods will add to the success, he said.

The department is offering some inmates short-term furloughs to help them establish housing and employment, the two biggest issues that determine successful parole.

It's also trying various programs to keep parolees from returning, including administering sanctions for parole violations in the community rather than returning violators to prison.

The two top concerns of senators about increasing the number of parolees were taxing community programs, such as mental health programs, and ensuring public safety with adequate supervision.

With the programs and safeguards being put in place, the public will be safe, Houston said. Many of those being released are in the lower risk group, sentenced to three years or less. And the department will increase the number of parole supervisors by moving correctional officers into those roles.

"What we're doing matches what a lot of states are doing as budgets go down," Houston said.

Reach JoAnne Young at 402-473-7228 or



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