LINCOLN — The state’s prison director said Friday that he doesn’t think that his agency can meet a statutorily required July 2020 deadline to significantly reduce prison overcrowding.
But Corrections Director Scott Frakes joined a spokesman for Gov. Pete Ricketts in dismissing the idea that failing to meet the deadline of the so-called “prison overcrowding emergency” law will mean the release of perhaps 1,200 prison inmates and will create a public safety crisis.
“I don’t see that as an outcome,” Frakes told state senators during a briefing.
The law, according to Frakes and Taylor Gage, the governor’s spokesman, just means that the State Board of Parole needs to take another look at paroling eligible inmates. It doesn’t require the parole board to release them, they said.
“Read the statute,” Gage said.
State Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, who organized the briefing, said he disagrees.
He believes that the law clearly requires the state to either reduce the state’s prison capacity to 140 percent by July 2020 (which would be 747 fewer inmates than are now held in state prisons) or, if the deadline isn’t met, to begin emptying prisons until capacity gets to 125 percent, or about 1,200 fewer inmates than are now in state prisons.
More than once Friday, he asked Frakes to detail his agency’s plan to slim the overcrowding and meet the deadline.
“What do you need from us to help you get there?” Lathrop asked. “We’re open to whatever suggestions you have … it’s a public safety issue with those who have to be released.”
Frakes said his department is working as hard as it can to prepare inmates sooner for parole by expanding rehabilitation programs so that more are eligible for release by the Parole Board, an independent panel of five people appointed by the governor. But he doubted that the deadline would be met.
“We’re going to try our very best,” Frakes said.
The overcrowding emergency law, he told lawmakers, requires the Parole Board to take another, harder look at releasing inmates. But the law also says the board can deny release to those considered “a very substantial risk” to commit a violent crime or those considered “more likely than not” to refuse to follow the conditions of parole.
Lathrop, a trial lawyer, was recently chosen as chairman of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, which oversees corrections. In 2014, he led a legislative investigation into the problems in the state prison system that concluded that prison overcrowding — which has prompted a civil rights lawsuit against the state — was the root of many of the problems.
He said he plans to meet with Parole Board officials soon to determine what their plan is to meet the deadline.
“This is going to be a continuing conversation,” he said.
The Legislature passed the prison overcrowding emergency law to hold the Department of Correctional Services accountable for addressing the problem. The state prison’s population has been above 140 percent of capacity — a mark seen as a trigger for federal lawsuits — for more than a decade.
Efforts to reduce overcrowding by diverting lower-level offenders into local jails or probation programs have only worked to level out prison populations.
Frakes said Friday that overcrowding has increased in recent weeks to 5,470 inmates, or about 162 percent of capacity, and that he’s looking into why. That number does not include 110 state inmates who are being housed in county jails under a program he said will probably continue.
The governor recently proposed a $49 million, 384-bed prison expansion in Lincoln to house high-security inmates. Frakes said that expansion would not be completed until 2023, but it, and other building projects, are projected to bring the state’s prison population to just under 140 percent of capacity.
Ricketts, when asked about overcrowding earlier this week, said he hoped that lawmakers would realize that the department is on course to address the issue.