Nebraska seeks answers to prison overcrowding; Michigan sees results from its policy changes

Prison overcrowding is one of the most persistent and confounding problems facing state criminal justice systems, and the issue is especially pertinent in the Midwest — home to three of the nation’s five most overcrowded prison systems.  
As of the end of 2016, Nebraska had the second highest prison population as a percent of designed capacity, Illinois was third and Wisconsin fifth. 
In 2015, Nebraska legislators passed a package of prison reform bills, including language (LB 598) that an “overcrowding emergency” be declared if the state’s inmate population is over 140 percent of design capacity as of July 1, 2020.
With a little over a year left before that date, Nebraska still has a lot of progress to make, and legislators are not standing idly by as the deadline approaches.
This year, for example, Sen. Carol Blood’s LB 114 seeks to reduce the negative consequences of offenders’ violations while in prison. This bill would limit the amount of “good time” taken away to six months for nonviolent misconduct and two years for violent misconduct. The bill also allows good time to be restored by the heads of Nebraska’s prisons, with agreement from the corrections department director.
Citing her past experience as a corrections officer, Sen. Blood believes Nebraska’s current policies permit dangerous working conditions: “If you are incarcerated and you have really nothing that you can work toward and no hope, why do you care how you behave? What do you have to lose?”
She argues that prison employees would be safer if inmates had greater incentives to follow the rules.
LB 114 does not aim to release people before their prison sentences are finished. Rather, it seeks to ease Nebraska’s overcrowding by releasing people as close to the date assigned by the judge as possible.
“If we are giving people incentive to get out and they’re doing their programming and they are being good [prisoners], then we have an opportunity to move inmates through the system in an effective and appropriate manner,” Blood says.
One of the other bills under consideration this year, LB 108, would continue the practice of contracting 150 beds with county jails, as long as there is a vacancy and the jails will meet programming requirements. Additionally, the bill would allow county jails to house inmates within one year of their parole or release eligibility.
Finally, LB 277 would change the makeup of the five-member Nebraska Board of Parole, mandating that it have at least one female, one with professional corrections experience, one ethnic minority, and one with professional experience dealing with substance abuse or mental illness.
Another way to reduce prison overcrowding is to build more prison space. Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts has proposed funding a 384-bed addition at one of Nebraska’s existing correctional facilities.
There is precedent for Midwestern states to successfully, and dramatically, reduce their prison populations. Between 2006 and 2016, Michigan’s prison population fell by 20 percent. One reason for this drop was the creation of the Michigan Prisoner Reentry Initiative, which increased parole approval rates and reduced parole returns to prison by engaging with the community and establishing alternatives to revocation for parole violators. (Michigan’s drop in prison rates was also accompanied by a 37 percent reduction in its index crime rate and a 41 percent reduction in recidivism.)
The Michigan Legislature has taken significant actions as well. Under an 18-bill package signed into law in 2017, the state’s parole and probation practices were updated and new tools were established to reduce recidivism. Later in 2017, new laws were enacted (SB 435-438) to expedite the use of alternatives to prison, such as the use of specialized drug and mental health treatment courts.
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