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Editorial, 1/21: New prison should wait until other efforts tried

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Nebraska State Penitentiary, 9.28

An engineers' study found that the State Penitentiary would need $220 million in upgrades to extend its life. Six sites in Lancaster, Douglas and Sarpy counties have been identified as locations for a replacement facility.

In his State of the State address last week, Gov. Pete Ricketts hit upon a truth as he called for replacing the aging Nebraska State Penitentiary as part of solving Nebraska’s prison overcrowding crisis.

“I am not asking anyone to choose between supporting a modern State Penitentiary and pursuing policies that aim to reduce crime and recidivism,” he said. “These solutions are not at odds, and there is room for both as we work to strengthen Nebraska.”

With the penitentiary in Lincoln almost as old as Nebraska itself, physical improvements for the safety of workers and incarcerated people alike are needed there.

However, rather that committing to building a new prison to entirely phase out the State Penitentiary, lawmakers would be wise to retrace the steps that got Nebraska into this mess and rectify them.

Fortunately for them, a detailed roadmap exists that would help to turn the tide on the current path that’s given Nebraska the unfortunate honor of having America’s most crowded state prisons. A recently released report by the Crime and Justice Institute gives the state 21 actionable options.

While not all of them generated consensus, they offer far less costly options than building a new prison with a nine-figure price tag – and that’s before considering the devastating human toll excessive imprisonment has had on certain communities within this state.

Some well-intended laws in Nebraska have instead ended up creating negative consequences in the state’s prisons, helping to accelerate the growth of the prison population while all but one other state is seeing declines.

Take a 2009 law that created mandatory minimums and stiffened penalties in an attempt to deter assaults and gun crimes in north Omaha and route offenders into the state prisons rather than federal ones. In the end, having more people with longer sentences in Nebraska prisons has only worsened prisons’ overcrowding and gang problems.

Yet some senators remain vocal in their thinking that something as simple as drug possession in and of itself is a violent crime. Substance abuse is an illness that has been criminalized, much to the detriment of those who suffer from it, and often masks other mental and physical health concerns.

And Nebraska too often treats it with imprisonment, given that Corrections reports one in seven people in the state prisons has a drug offense as the most serious conviction. Not to mention that the CJI report notes that drug convictions were the leading cause of admission to state prisons in 2020.

Addressing these problems – along with several other suggestions that include parole standards, problem-solving courts and sentencing reform – are the appropriate next step to slow and reverse increases in the state’s prison population.

And that, we hope, negates the need for a new prison in Nebraska, even as state officials search for a site.

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