Review concludes ‘viscous circle’ in Corrections

Posted By: Nicole Cousins

It’s been a tough year for the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services.

They’ve dealt with a disturbance at Tecumseh, escaped inmates from LCC and increasing assaults on staff.

Now NDCS and the State Legislature are faced with the daunting task of turning things around.

"Its a challenging business that we’re in," NDCS director Scott Frakes said.

His department and Legislature are in a race against time to solve the overcrowding, retaining staff, lack of programming and recriminalization issues NDCS faces.

A viscous cycle that’s been years in the making.

“These are not things that you fix overnight,” Frakes said. “These are some deep challenging issues.”

NDCS’s current overall capacity is at 157 percent.

96 percent of inmates who get released end up back in prison.

According to a law passed in 2015, Corrections has until 2020 to cut capacity down to 140 percent.

A special investigative committee held 10 hearings this fall to address ways the legislature and NDCS can work together to meet that deadline.

Senator Patty Pansing Brooks, who headed the committee, released 33 recommendations on Thursday.

"The underlying frustration is that we are in this cycle of the director who is working really hard and has great ideas being forced to place those ideas into an arbitrary number of what we can pay for instead of what we really need,” Pansing Brooks said.

Money may be a major issue.

The state is already looking at a nearly $1 billion budget shortfall this year, and Frakes is asking for about a 10 percent budget increase.

That, on top of $75 million for a new mental and behavioral health facility.

"This is a project to get the most efficiency out of what are now 2 facilities that will be combined into one,” Frakes said. “And to create 32 beds to take care of our most difficult, most ill and most dangerous population within this system"

Another costly recommendation from the legislature that may help reduce overcrowding is a complete overhaul of Nebraska’s criminal code.

"We recommended that a number of attorneys from around the state come together take a look at the criminal code to see what laws are outdated and where we are placing people in prison that are not a danger to society," Pansing Brooks said.

Despite necessary changes and looming challenges, NDCS says it has made significant strides this year.

Those include seeing a decline in inmates placed in restrictive housing, improving how sentences are calculated and bettering the culture for its staff.

“I do want the citizens of Nebraska, I want my staff, I want the advocates I work with, I certainly want the legislature to appreciate what we have accomplished,” Frakes said.

Director Frakes plans on looking over all 33 recommendations and meeting with the legislative committee at the beginning of next year.

Senator Pansing Brooks says this overhaul isn’t just important for the fate of corrections, but for the safety of all Nebraskans.