Lancaster County has become a trial ground for improving criminal justice in Nebraska – a positive development that’s picked up steam in the last 12 months.
A pilot program funded by the ACLU to pay cash bonds for low-income inmates and reduce jail overcrowding debuted last summer. It was quickly followed by a county-led warrant amnesty event to keep low-level misdemeanor offenders out of jail.
After these promising starts, Lincoln and Lancaster County officials are trying out Nebraska’s first night court sessions, which will provide access to court proceedings outside the typical daytime hours. The continued growth of these trial efforts indicates they hold promise.
For people facing charges but unable to attend at the normal time, these additional hours could be the chance to avoid sitting in jail for failing to pay a fine for a minor offense.
Attendees at the last night court session in November cited immovable work and/or child care obligations as the top reason they didn’t get their legal matters handled during normal hours. With the wait time to see a judge unpredictable and varying by the day, the present schedule (8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday) doesn’t work for everyone.
Sure, two nights of extra court sessions comes with an increased staffing cost. But keeping someone from being incarcerated likely brings a far greater savings.
The average inmate at the Lancaster County Jail costs $100 per day to house. But consider that last November’s night court cleared 90 warrants, and the potential shines through. And that’s before noting the jail, which opened in 2013, neared its designed capacity within the first five years.
As Lincoln and Lancaster County show no signs of stopping their growth, it’s unlikely this problem dissipates anytime soon. Hence the need to borrow from best practices elsewhere – six states operate some form of a night court – and try applying them to this metro area’s needs.
After all, our courts are called the justice system for a reason. Jailing people who failed to appear in court on minor charges because they had to care for a young child or make an honest living misplaces priorities. It’s akin to the prescription being worse than the illness.
As Lancaster County Public Defender Joe Nigro told the Journal Star: "People are presumed innocent, and yet sometimes the system doesn’t treat them that way.”
Our nation is rapidly turning the page on criminal justice reform to a more optimistic approach. Therefore, it’s worth ensuring the ideals powering federal improvements – particularly for nonviolent offenders – trickle down to the local level, too.
We’re glad to see Lincoln and Lancaster County take the lead and institute innovative programs in hopes they create lasting improvements.