The Nebraska Legislature’s Appropriations Committee faces a critical decision this session: approve Gov. Pete Ricketts’ misguided plan to build a massive and expensive new prison that carries about a $230 million price tag or listen to Nebraskans and work with their colleagues to implement smart justice approaches that have succeeded in other states.
Hopefully, the answer is clear. State senators should invest in Nebraskans, not a new prison. This money should be directed instead to targeted tax relief, improving education, pandemic relief, building roads and building up smart alternatives to incarceration.
As a proud eight-year member of the Appropriations Committee, I know how challenging it is to balance the budget amid uncertain economic conditions while working collaboratively to meet the most pressing needs of Nebraskans across our beautiful state.
I also know that Nebraska’s budget process can be confusing because it works a little differently than the other standing committees, but the basics are relatively straightforward. Before the budget goes to the full Nebraska Legislature for debate, the Appropriations Committee will hear testimony on its preliminary budget.
Public hearings on the budget are happening now. In its preliminary budget, the committee has set aside millions and millions of dollars for the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services facility needs, but they have not earmarked those funds to a new prison.
Thus, the time is now to contact members of the committee and your state senator to ensure our tax dollars are invested in a way that better meets our needs before the committee finalizes its decision and the budget is sent to the full Legislature for debate. When the state budget is advanced to the legislative floor, it should ensure no taxpayer dollars go to funding a massive new prison.
The Journal Star recently noted that state senators have rightly approached this massive new prison request with skepticism and have expressed interest in alternatives. Local economic development officials have also expressed that communities do not want this massive new prison in their backyards, either.
State senators’ questions to Nebraska prison officials reflect what their constituents are thinking. Recent polling found a majority of Nebraskans from across the political spectrum share these exact concerns. A huge majority -- 80% -- agreed we are wasting too much money locking up people who should instead be receiving mental health treatment or addiction services.
Once we recognize that new prisons are not the answer, we can focus on meaningful, lasting reforms. Through the last 40 years of steady construction, Nebraska has not been able to build its way out of its prison overcrowding crisis.
By NDCS’ own accounting, this construction project won’t accomplish that task either. In fact, public records show that the proposed 1,512-bed prison represents barely half of the department’s goal at this site. If Nebraska continues to try to build its way out of its mass incarceration problem, it will bankrupt us fiscally and morally. State spending on corrections is already outpacing education.
There is a better way. State senators do not have to look far for a plan that works. We have seen bipartisan solutions work in red states, blue states and at the federal level. These approaches all share a focus on better outcomes through a combination of alternatives to mass incarceration: diversion, programming, reentry and sensible sentencing reform.
They all recognize that modest community investment in prevention can head off far greater expenses down the road. Consider that the yearly cost of problem-solving court supervision is less than $3,000 per participant, compared to an average of almost $40,000 to hold someone in our prisons.
We can achieve our shared public safety goals, save money and better address the stark racial disparities through our prison system by investing in what works: smart justice reform and centering the needs of people in our communities.
We do not need a new prison. We need state senators to lead and find a better path for all of us and with all of us. Together, we can build solutions instead of prison walls.
Danielle Conrad is executive director of the ACLU of Nebraska and served in the Legislature from 2007 to 2015.