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Nebraska's Prison Overcrowding Emergency Now in Third Year


Monday, July 11, 2022   

Nebraska is now in year three of a prison overcrowding emergency, according to the latest numbers released by the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services.

In 2020, Nebraska was forced to declare the emergency for violating federal rules limiting populations to 114% of design capacity.

Spike Eickholt - a lobbyist with the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska - said the report also confirms that racial disparities exist throughout Nebraska's criminal-justice system, which begin long before people end up behind bars.

"Everywhere from the initial traffic stop to pre-trial detention to sentences that are imposed into the prison system," said Eickholt. "And what you see is that you see an over-representation of people of color, particularly black people in the prison system."

Black Nebraskans make up just 5% of the state's overall population, but represent more than a quarter of the state's prison population.

The agency responsible for managing Nebraska's prison system has repeatedly argued that the only possible answer to overcrowding is for the state to build a new prison.

Overcrowding also has limited rehabilitation programs, a problem that Eickholt said increases a person's likelihood of returning to prison.

It costs Nebraska taxpayers more than $38,000 a year for every person serving time. Eickholt said most Nebraskans would prefer not to see their tax dollars go to a major state investment in a new prison.

"Because not only is it going to cost hundreds of millions of dollars to construct," said Eickholt. "It's going to cost millions of dollars after that to staff and operate. We still have a problem with staffing the current prison systems that we have now, which is why we are at a staffing emergency."

Nebraska prisons were operating at 141% of design capacity in 2020 when the emergency became official. As of March, prison populations reached 152% of capacity.

Eickholt said there are a number of proven alternatives to imprisonment, including adding mental-health courts to deal with non-violent addiction-related crime.

"That would supplement the regular court system and add to the investment the state already has made," said Eickholt. "Even though that costs the state money, it's less than making a new prison, and it's less than locking people up for years and years, and hoping that they just don't come back."

Disclosure: ACLU of Nebraska contributes to our fund for reporting on Civil Rights, Criminal Justice, Immigrant Issues, Social Justice. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.

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