By Paul Hammel
LINCOLN — A deluge of new prison inmates — many convicted of sex crimes — is overwhelming the state's effort to relieve overcrowding in the state corrections facilities.
The state has been ramping up a program to accelerate parole for short-term, low-risk inmates and reduce overcrowding, which has hovered around 140 percent of capacity for several months.
But record-high admissions to Nebraska prisons, along with still-transitioning rehabilitative programs, have left those efforts well short of expectations.
Instead of populations falling at the nine state correctional facilities, numbers have risen in the past few months, reaching 4,482, or 141.17 percent of capacity, last week.
State prison officials spoke last year of paroling more than 260 inmates by July 1, but the number of inmates on parole has risen by only 40 since March 1.
Bob Houston, state corrections director, remains confident his department can reach a goal of reducing the state's prison population by 545 inmates, or about 12 percent, over the next two years.
“I think we're on a good track,” Houston said. “But nothing is as fast as I'd like it to be.”
State Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, chairman of the legislative committee that oversees corrections issues, said he has faith in the effort to deal with more inmates in less-expensive community settings rather than prison cells. But it's clear changes might be needed, he said.
“We're going in the wrong direction, so we'll have to revisit this,” Ashford said.
State officials, needing to close a nearly $1 billion budget gap this spring, were counting on faster progress to parole more short-term inmates, providing significant cost savings.
A total of $6.7 million in savings was projected over the next two years by paroling 545 inmates.
It costs about $29,000 a year to house an offender behind bars, compared with $5,000 per year for intense parole supervision. Houston and others say parole, coupled with treatment, is more effective at avoiding repeat crimes.
The expected reduction had another anticipated benefit: heading off construction of a $125-million-plus state prison.
When the prison population reaches 140 percent of capacity, it triggers a report to the governor, who can declare an emergency. The figure also can be a benchmark federal judges use to order construction of new prison cells.
The increase in new state prison inmates comes at a time when crime rates are falling in the state and across the nation.
Nebraska's numbers buck another national trend: The number of state prisoners nationwide fell last year for the first time since 1972.
The growth in the number of sex offenders sent to prison appears to be a major culprit in the prison population dilemma.
Such offenders generally serve longer sentences and are paroled at a much lower frequency than other inmates, exacerbating the overcrowding problem.
In the past couple of years, sex offenders have supplanted drug dealers and drug users as the largest group in Nebraska prisons.
A sex offense was the most serious crime committed by nearly 19 percent of all state inmates. Assault followed at 13 percent, with felony drug crimes third at 12 percent.
Officials said prison alternatives such as drug court and community corrections have reduced the number of inmates sentenced for drug crimes.
But while one in five inmates is in prison for sex crimes, only about one in 30 offenders released on parole last year, or 28 in 797, was a sex offender.
- One in five, a "statistic" that seems to pop up everywhere, with no evidence to back it up!
That is despite a low rate of recidivism for sex offenders. A 2002 U.S. Department of Justice study found that 5.3 percent of men who committed rape or sexual assault had reoffended within three years of being released from prison.
Esther Casmer, the state parole board chairwoman, disagreed that the low rate of parole for sex offenders was related to any cultural fear of such criminals.
- I disagree! This mass hysteria and moral panic has turned into a witch-hunt, by news media, police and politicians who continually rehash old sound-bites of recidivism being high, when in fact it's the opposite, even the people who make a registry program (Offender Watch) help spread the fear as well, just so politicians can "look tough" while doing nothing, news media gets viewers and higher ratings and police can also "look tough" while doing nothing.
Casmer said her board is often presented with parole candidates who have either refused treatment for sex offenses or have been unable to get treatment because of waiting lists in the state prison system.
Casmer said she won't parole anyone who hasn't shown through treatment that his (or her) risk of reoffending has been reduced.
“Those programs are designed to address sexual deviancy or predatory behavior,” she said. “We are not going to consider them for parole without treatment. It wouldn't make sense.”
Houston said his department has increased the quality and capacity of in-prison treatment and is working to create more community-based treatment programs for sex offenders so more inmates can be treated outside prison, during parole.
The state has begun offering more out-of-prison treatment programs through a “day-reporting center” in Lincoln and is working to duplicate that effort in Douglas County.
Once additional community treatment programs are in place, the number of parolees should increase, Houston said.
There are a couple of signs of progress. The number of inmates on parole has risen to 1,015, up from 975 on March 1. Four additional parole officers have been hired in both Omaha and Lincoln and the plan is to hire 12 more.
Houston said six drug abuse counselors have been transferred to community positions so more services can be offered outside prison.
But, because of state budget reductions, the department must first cut expenses elsewhere to free up money to invest in the transition of more inmates to parole, Houston said.
A 160-inmate wing of the Omaha Correctional Center was closed in May, eliminating 14 correctional officer positions. But it takes time to retrain those officers or hire others as parole officers, drug counselors or sex-offender counselors, he said.
The record-high influx of new prisoners is not likely to abate soon, said Steve King, who tracks statistics for the state prison system.
Judges sentenced a record 237 new inmates in March, and the first quarter of 2011 also saw a record 630 new inmates entering prison. That followed a record 2,339 new inmates in 2010.
- It's because everyone has a "lock em' up and forget about em'" mentality, instead of rehabilitation, which is why prisons, from my understanding, were created in the first place. Now it's not about rehabilitation, it's about just locking them up and forgetting about them for awhile.
“We're just continuing to set new records,” King said.
He noted that the legislative trend in recent years has been to increase and enhance sentences, sending more people to prison for longer sentences.
- Enhance? Really? Or should it just be increase? Enhance means to make something better, not longer and more harsh!
Ashford said it is unclear whether more money will be needed to bolster treatment of sex offenders or whether senators need to re-examine sex offenders' prison sentences.
- I don't think it's unclear. Yes, more money will be needed for treatment, and yes you need to re-examine the sentences.
Prison officials might have to amend their approach to reach their goals of reducing prison overcrowding, Ashford said.
“I do believe the department is doing the best they can, but there may be some structural changes that have to be made,” he said.
- Beyond Bars: Rejoining Society After Prison
- BEHIND BARS: Surviving Prison
- Inside: Life Behind Bars in America
- Prison Nation: The Warehousing of America's Poor
- Going Up the River: Travels in a Prison Nation
- Hard Time Blues: How Politics Built a Prison Nation
- The nation behind prison bars