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City-County buliding

A view of the County-City Building looking west along Lincoln Mall.

A pair of promising pilot programs in the midst of trial runs could yield positive results at easing crowding at the Lancaster County Jail, nearing capacity after only five years in operation.

An editorial last month commended the first to be rolled out, an effort led by ACLU of Nebraska to pay bail costs for low-level, nonviolent offenders. It seeks to reduce the monetary and societal costs of holding inmates who were unable to afford bond and sit out their fine while awaiting trial.

Now, it’s time to laud the second.

For four days this week, from Tuesday through Friday, Lincoln and Lancaster County prosecutors are offering anyone with an active misdemeanor warrant the chance to go to the clerk of courts’ office to request their case be sent to court. By doing this, the warrant is recalled once a hearing is set – and the person will then be released on their own recognizance, avoiding the need for bail.

By keeping the lowest level of misdemeanor offenders from being booked into jail and held there until trial at a cost that averages roughly $100 per day, this effort will almost certainly save taxpayers money. And since many people miss court appearances because of family or work obligations, as Lancaster County Attorney Pat Condon noted, this pilot allows them to avoid the pitfalls that can hurt both.

If all goes well, outstanding warrants – of which the county has about 5,000 – will be cleaned up and sped up. Those with the least severe offenses can have their situations remedied without paying bail or serving time in jail. Lincoln and Lancaster County save money. Families and businesses don’t lose valuable members for minor crimes on account of court appearances or awaiting trial.

See why we’re optimistic about the results of this four-day test run?

These steps are certainly small. But trying new things and seeing which of them are successful may help inspire the needed criminal justice reform to reduce the mass incarceration.

The status quo has led to packed jails in Nebraska’s largest counties. Meanwhile, the state corrections system remains one of the nation’s most overcrowded at more than 150 percent its designed capacity. When on a path this unsustainable, innovation becomes imperative.

And this latest model, along with the initial push by the ACLU that inspired it, being tried in Lancaster County certainly offers promise.

Two sources are approaching criminal justice reform with short-term trials. One is attempting to keep low-level offenders from being booked into jail; the other is hoping to prevent them from sitting out fines in jail.

What matters most is that Lincoln and Lancaster County are exploring ways to reduce the fiscal and social burden of a packed jail. And both of these test cases deserve praise for attempting to solve a serious problem on a small scale.

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