by Kevin W. Bliss
Despite a watchdog report finding state prisons so short-staffed that some guard supervisors sought demotions to take advantage of ballooning hourly overtime pay, the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services (DCS) will not see any help from lawmakers this session, after an ambitious prison overhaul bill died in April 2022.
That proposed law, LB920, was based on the “justice reinvestment” model of prison reform, which prioritizes holding serious and repeat offenders in the state’s limited prison space—currently running more than 50% over design capacity—while investing in cheaper and more effective alternatives to incarceration for low-level offenders. Without it, DCS will need two new prisons to house a projected 1,300 more prisoners at a cost north of half a billion dollars.
Data suggest that justice reinvestment works: Between 2007 and 2019, as the overall incarceration rate in the U.S. fell 17%, the country’s violent crime rate fell 19%, thanks largely to efforts by three dozen states that codified justice reinvestment laws, which also saved billions of tax dollars.
So what happened in Nebraska? One factor was a lack of time. Opposing sides did not start serious negotiations until the final weeks of the legislative session, leaving them hamstrung to find common ground on complex issues, especially the sentencing reform needed to divert all those low-level offenders from prison. When law enforcement groups came out strongly against it, Gov. Pete Ricketts (R), who initially welcomed the initiative, determined that reductions in criminal penalties were too “soft on crime.”
Many other Republican state politicians now expect to keep or win their seats with their opposition to LB920, despite the extraordinary expenditures in new prison construction that the bill’s defeat will require.
Meanwhile, the state’s prisons continue to grapple with overcrowding and staffing shortages, causing lockdowns and affecting programming, security, and staff overtime. In the last three years state taxpayers have shelled out $48 million in overtime expenses for prison guards, $15.4 million in 2021 alone. Guards work 24-hour shifts or back-to-back 16-hour days. Sensitive areas such a restrictive housing and protective management are left unattended for hours at a time. In addition to all those prisoners left languishing in isolation, advocates fret over fatigue-clouded staff misjudgments—which may have contributed to four prisoner deaths in 2021.
State Sen. Steve Lathrop (D) said that DCS staffing concerns are surpassing prison overcrowding concerns, “affecting the safety of not just the inmates, but the security staff itself. We’re in a spiral it seems to me.”
To recruit more guards, DCS offers new hires a $15,000 bonus and $10,000 for an employee referral. Those hired before July 31, 2021, may earn a $500 retention bonus. The September 2021 watchdog report released by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) said the bonuses contribute to the larger issue of “wage compression,” the difference between hourly employees’ pay and their salaried supervisors’ earnings. As the gap between the two is quickly narrowing, salaried supervisors are beginning to seek demotions for higher pay on hourly wages with large amounts of overtime. The staffing situation is so dire that OIG recommended the governor consider bringing in the National Guard to assist DCS. See: Office of Inspector General of the Nebraska Correctional System 2021 Annual Report.
Additional sources: AP News, Flatwater Free Press, Omaha World-Herald
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