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Alternatives to NE 'Building Its Way Out' of Prison Overcrowding

Nebraska increased funding for corrections by 290% between 1985 and 2016, outpacing other state investments like higher education, which grew by just 57% in the same time period. (Pxfuel)
Nebraska increased funding for corrections by 290% between 1985 and 2016, outpacing other state investments like higher education, which grew by just 57% in the same time period. (Pxfuel)
March 12, 2020

LINCOLN, Neb. -- As Nebraska lawmakers consider a proposal to build a new prison to address the state's overcrowded corrections population, reform advocates say there are solid alternatives at work in other states.

Nebraska officials have until July to reduce prison numbers from as high as 200% of capacity to under 140%.

Marc Levin, vice president of the Texas Public Policy Foundation's national Right on Crime campaign, says moving geriatric prisoners to parole, and relocating others to county or private facilities could buy the state some time.

"If you build a prison, that's hundreds of millions of dollars that would get in the way of property tax relief and other priorities," he states. "The advantage of a short-term arrangement, whether it's with county jails or private operators is, you can bridge the gap without incurring a huge obligation on behalf of taxpayers."

If officials cannot reduce prison populations in time, Nebraska will face an "overcrowding emergency," forcing the state to release enough people to reach 125% of capacity.

Some lawmakers have voiced concern for public safety if mandatory releases take effect.

But building a new 1,600 bed prison is projected to cost taxpayers $241 million.

Levin says it's possible to both reduce crime and prison population at the same time.

Solutions include investing in mental health programs, addiction treatment and job training programs, to help people re-enter society as productive members.

"Nebraska is one of the few states that hasn't really reformed its mandatory minimums, even for drug possession," Levin points out. "And then also, you know, individuals who committed property crimes because of their addiction -- and if you treat the addiction, you can actually stop the criminal activity."

Levin maintains Legislative Bill 131 to reform mandatory minimum sentences -- especially for nonviolent drug offenders -- would be a good start.

Nebraska's prison population is currently the second-most overcrowded in the nation.

Eric Galatas, Public News Service - NE