Seven times a year, the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce hosts a luncheon with the somewhat daunting title of "Face the Chamber." I am not easily daunted, though, and have often been the speaker at the event. I had the podium again yesterday, and decided to speak about the challenges of prison overcrowding and the high cost of incarceration.
I told the audience about four high profile incidents in Nebraska that have grabbed headlines during the past year, involving conditionally-released inmates, and one who was very recently-released. These incidents have occurred against the backdrop of a significant move in Nebraska and nationwide to reduce prison populations.
I tried to make three key points. First, prison is expensive, and if we are unwilling as taxpayers to foot the bill, we better find smart alternatives. Second, a critical factor on whether alternatives to prison or shorter sentences work is whether there are good services available. People being released from prison need help with such things as housing, employment, transportation, treatment, and supervision. Our record on child welfare reform, and behavioral health reform in Nebraska has been pretty spotty, in part because while we closed institutions and privatized services, we just never provided enough community-based alternatives to meet the demand. Let's not do the same thing in corrections.
Lastly, I encouraged the audience to listen closely whenever they hear someone talking about alternatives to prison for non-violent offenses. I can show you plenty of people incarcerated for a non-violent offense right now, but whose criminal history is very long, and includes a mix of violent and non-violent felonies. The current sentence is usually only a small part of the total picture. I'd also argue that someone serving a sentence for their 8th drunk driving conviction, or their 4th conviction for felony drug dealing is really not a "non-violent offender." I think we already do a mighty good job keeping people who don't need to be there out of prison. Might be some room for improvement, and never hurts to look, but from my perspective I don't see a lot of inmates in the big house unnecessarily.
I also explained the reality of sentencing, because many citizens are not aware of such things as "good time" laws. Basically, Nebraska law provides that for every day served, you get a day knocked off your sentence. Ten years actually means five. At sentencing, many defendants get credit for the time served in jail awaiting trial, and you're generally eligible for parole after you've served about half your minimum. Thus, the ten year sentence ends up being more like three years in many cases. The recently-released offender now charged with four Omaha murders was sentenced to a term of 18 to 21 years for five violent felonies, but served less than 10 years before he reached his mandatory release date in July. It is alleged that he shot and killed four people over the course of the next month. That's the law. Welcome to my world.
I think our Nebraska Department of Correctional Services does a good job with the resources we give them, and I have great confidence in their leadership. But if our public policy as determined by our elected legislators is to release more people who have served a fraction of their sentence, increase the number of people on parole, furlough, probation, and in other community corrections settings; then our corrections department will need the resources to deal with the caseload and provide the services. That's where I'm concerned.
We are also going to have to accept the fact that although risk can be mitigated, it cannot be eliminated. Nothing is perfect: stuff happens. With more inmates in community corrections programs, and with shortened sentences, cases like those I cited will continue to occur from time to time.