by Jordan Arizmendi and Chuck Sharman
Attendance at parole hearings by all five members of the Nebraska Parole Board has improved, after a 43-month stretch from 2018 to 2021 when all five showed up for just 37% of parole hearings. [See: PLN, Nov. 2022, p.53.]
When media reports in March 2022 highlighted that statistic, attendance jumped. It jumped again after state lawmakers introduced a bill in January 2023 to define “neglect of duties” – a reason for removal from the board – as missing three hearings in a year.
Over the next two months after LB 631 was introduced by Sen. Terrell McKinney (D-Omaha), attendance at parole hearings for the full board quickly climbed to 63%. The bill was still pending after a floor debate in the state legislature on March 31, 2023.
Board members pointed to reasons other than media attention for their attendance improvement, including the waning COVID-19 pandemic and fewer family deaths, as well as medical leave in 2021 and 2022 for board chair Rosalyn Cotton, leaving her attendance rate over the past five years – missing 22.7% of hearings – the lowest of any board member.
Board counsel Nicole Miller called the earlier low attendance figures “more the anomaly instead of the pattern.”
“Honestly, 2023 is probably more representative,” she said.
But McKinney found the coincidence between the publicity of low attendance and improved numbers since “interesting.”
“You got poor attendance, and then you got declining parole rate,” he observed. “It all goes together. We have to figure out a system to make it work, and it’s not helpful that the parole board hasn’t been doing the best of their abilities as far as … their jobs in a sense.”
The board’s 2022 annual report noted that 58% of parole-eligible Nebraska prisoners remained incarcerated in 2020. It did not cite newer figures except to say that 40% of those who were parole-eligible yet stuck in prison in January 2023 had screwed up and had parole revoked before. Of 365 parolees hauled before the board for revocation in 2022, only one was not revoked. See: Neb. Bd. of Parole, Div. of Parole Superv’n Annual Report FY 2022.
Releasing more parole-eligible prisons would relieve overcrowding in state lockups, which are operating at about 150% of designed capacity. Former Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) proposed a new prison, but it would merely replace the existing Nebraska State Penitentiary (NSP). Rob Jeffries, recruited from the Illinois Department of Corrections to helm Nebraska prisons in April 2023 by current Gov. Jim Pillen (R),
endorsed the $366 million plan.
Another bill introduced by McKinney, LB 50, would pair budget approval for the new NSP with criminal justice reform measures, including one offering earlier parole as an incentive for prisoners to complete rehabilitative programming. Currently, McKinney said that about 800 state prisoners every year “jam out” – completing their sentences without completing programming – meaning the state loses any leverage to encourage rehabilitation efforts that might keep them from returning to prison.
The appropriations bill with funds to construct a new NSP passed the legislature’s Appropriations Committee on April 6, 2023. The Committee approved LB 50 on May 22, 2023. The Committee Chair, Sen. Justin Wayne (D-Omaha), called it “probably one of the most fiscally responsible things we can do this year.”
Additional sources: Flatwater Free Press, Nebraska Public Media
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