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Nonprofit digs into data to help Nebraska get a handle on overcrowded prisons
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Nonprofit digs into data to help Nebraska get a handle on overcrowded prisons

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State Penitentiary dorm

A 100-bed housing unit opened earlier this year at the Nebraska State Penitentiary, the first dorm built at the facility since 1998.

Between 2011 and 2016, 94 state prisons and juvenile facilities across the U.S. have closed.

For the next several months, stakeholders and analysts will dig into data and discuss policies aimed at criminal justice reform in Nebraska.

“We are committed to using research-based and cost-effective strategies to ensure public safety and improve the quality and functioning of Nebraska’s criminal justice system,” state leaders wrote in a letter earlier this year.

Gov. Pete Ricketts, Chief Justice Mike Heavican, Speaker of the Legislature Mike Hilgers and Sen. Steve Lathrop signed the March letter. They were asking the U.S. Department of Justice and The Pew Charitable Trusts for technical help from a nonprofit that can analyze data and use research — and its experience in other states — to inform decisions and policy.

In April, they received a response: Nebraska was approved and will get that help from the nonprofit Crime and Justice Institute as part of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative.

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In the March letter, the four officials wrote that Nebraska’s prisons are some of the most crowded in the nation. Between July 2019 and June 2020, Department of Corrections data show, the average daily population of the state’s prisons was 115% of facility operational capacity and 157% of design capacity. And, the officials wrote, the system faces aging infrastructure.

The incarceration rate here increased by 17% over the last 15 years, they wrote, while it declined in most U.S. states. The rate of people who returned to custody also increased.

The officials pledged to provide the Crime and Justice Institute with access to data, establish a task force with representatives from “across the justice system spectrum,” and use that group’s findings to prepare for legislative and administrative actions next year.

To the extent that reforms generate savings, they said, they will prioritize reinvestment into programs that are shown to reduce crime and recidivism.

Lathrop, of Omaha, often refers to this point in Nebraska’s history as “a crossroads.” He chairs the Legislature's Judiciary Committee and has focused on corrections and criminal justice issues. 

Because the prisons are overcrowded, there’s an idea that the state needs more capacity, he said, and states across the country are undertaking initiatives that are generally termed “smart on crime.”

“My hope is that we can get information from this process that will inform a long-term approach to criminal justice and corrections,” Lathrop said. He expects that the undertaking will result in legislation to be considered during the session that starts in January. The letter makes it clear that expectation is shared among the officials who signed it.

“What I think made Nebraska a real opportunity was the commitment of state leaders to tackle these issues,” Len Engel, CJI’s director of policy and campaigns, told the World-Herald. 

Several states make similar requests, Engel said. To select which ones receive help, CJI assesses a state’s situation and where it’s likely headed based on leadership. 

In this case, he said, Nebraska quickly rose to the top of the pile. 

While the main impetus for its selection was state leaders’ commitment, he said, the situation here was also acute.

So far, there has been just an introductory meeting with the task force. Engel said the group is made up of roughly 15 people from across the justice system in Nebraska.

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Ricketts' spokesman, Taylor Gage, who provided the letters regarding the state's request for assistance, did not provide a list of the task force's members and did not offer an explanation why.

The nonprofit is gathering a decade’s worth of data — not just on prison admissions and releases, but on the availability of community resources, court data on probation and processing cases, and more. 

Two data analysts will dig into it, Engel said. Starting in mid-August, data presentations should offer a sense of underlying issues.

CJI is also talking with “dozens” of people across the state, from probation officers to judges to police chiefs, Engel said. A facilitator who specializes in working with victims is also holding roundtable discussions.

In the background is the Ricketts administration’s proposal to build a 1,600-bed, $230 million prison to replace the State Penitentiary in Lincoln. There’s awareness of that proposal, but it is not CJI’s role to advise on new prisons, Engel said.

Rather, the team plans to create a projection model using data and current statutes, he said. Then the task force can plug policies into the model to see potential effects on admissions and releases. That can help predict the prison population and may inform the group's recommendation.

Similarly, CJI doesn’t make policy recommendations, Engel said, but facilitates discussions. It can also offer information from experiences in other states.

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It’s crucial, he said, that the recommendations and final product “come from the folks that have the most at stake.”

He expects the task force to issue a report with findings and recommendations in November.

Less than a decade ago, Nebraska similarly underwent a Justice Reinvestment Initiative led by the Council of State Governments. The resulting legislation, passed in 2015, did not achieve predicted reductions in the state prison population.

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Ricketts has said the earlier study came with too many preconceived notions about reforms Nebraska needed to pursue, and Engel identified a couple key differences between that initiative and this one.

When the Council of State Governments came to Nebraska, Engel said, Ricketts had just been elected. The effort was launched by the outgoing administration. And the quality of data has changed drastically, he said.

Nebraska would be eligible to apply for further support in implementing policies that fit into the "justice reinvestment" framework — it’s rare, Engel said, for that support not to follow this sort of review.

An example of a policy that could fall into that definition: Instead of building a 1,500-bed prison to replace an old one, a state might build a 1,000-bed prison and shift resources from the original building plans toward drug courts or residential treatment facilities, Engel said.

This all seems ambitious for a process that will span just four or five months. But Engel said it happens largely because the Justice Reinvestment Initiative is set out to be a data-driven process.

"We're collecting, cleaning, coding, and analyzing the data and presenting it," Engel said. From there, it's the state's job to take that information and chart out what's next.

 

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