By Pete Ricketts
Public safety and protecting Nebraska’s families and communities are key to the quality of life that makes Nebraska the best place in the world to live, work and raise a family. According to U.S. News and World Report, Nebraska has the 15th lowest violent crime rate in the nation. This is part of the reason why Nebraska has the 13th lowest incarceration rate in the country and the lowest among surrounding states.
While Nebraska has a low violent crime rate, there has been a lot of opportunity to ensure that our prisons and criminal justice system help bring that rate down. Over the past three years, state officials have been working to invest in our criminal justice system. This will help bring down the rate of reoffending and give our corrections officers a better work environment. This work has been a three-branch, bipartisan effort focused on five major areas: sentencing reform, funding operations, building prison capacity, improving facility staffing and expanding programming.
Over the past few years, all three branches of state government have worked on a series of justice reinvestment initiatives which we’ve successfully implemented. A key piece of this process was a comprehensive look at the state’s sentencing laws. Working together, state government implemented a series of reforms to make better use of supervised release and parole for non-violent offenders. Over 90 percent of the inmates in our system complete their sentences and return to our communities. Better use of programming and supervised release support smooth transitions out of our facilities and ultimately can help reduce the rate of reoffending.
Successful outcomes for the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services also require proper funding for operations and facilities so we can deliver programming and give our corrections officers a secure work environment. Over the past three years, the Legislature and I have made investments in corrections. In 2015, we dedicated an additional $37 million over two years to improve operations in the corrections system. In 2016, the Legislature and I agreed upon an additional $26 million to expand our current prison facilities. In 2017, we worked together again to provide another $75 million in housing investments to appropriately house and care for the needs of elderly inmates and to deliver better programming for those with behavioral health needs.
Staffing is another key focus. Corrections officers work on the front lines and are key to protecting public safety and ensuring that inmates receive programming. Working with senators, we have made investments in facility security upgrades, purchased new equipment and given corrections officers pay raises. We continue to focus on implementing new strategies to ensure that facilities are fully staffed and that officers get the support they need to do their jobs.
The final area of focus is programming, which is key to preparing inmates to return to our communities after completing their sentences. One such program is titled “Thinking for a Change.” It is helping inmates to recognize criminal thinking and replace it with constructive thinking and problem-solving skills. NDCS has also launched faith-based and business-oriented programming in partnership with non-profit organizations.
We’re keeping the focus on moving NDCS forward this year. In my budget, I’m recommending building 100 new beds at the Nebraska State Penitentiary, so we can further expand our system capacity. My budget also includes a request to expand the number of authorized corrections officers, so we can hire more personnel in key facilities.
It’s important to keep these areas of focus in mind. All of these initiatives are crafted with the aim of protecting the safety of Nebraska’s families and communities. It’s particularly important because some senators at the state capitol have been trying to repeal some of Nebraska’s important sentencing laws in the name of corrections reform. For example, Sen. Ernie Chambers wants to repeal mandatory minimum sentences for meth, cocaine and heroin dealers who sell significant quantities of drugs, use a firearm while dealing or deal drugs near our schools and youth centers.
The attorney general, local law enforcement officials and my office are working with senators to oppose these efforts. These changes are not “reform.” We have already implemented comprehensive sentencing reform as a part of our work on corrections, and these new efforts pose a serious threat to Nebraska families.
While my team continues to work with Senators to make new investments in corrections, we will strongly oppose any efforts to weaken laws that protect Nebraska’s families. If you feel strongly, I hope that you’ll take the time to contact your state senator and urge them to maintain our great public safety laws that are protecting our communities. You can find their contact information at nebraskalegislature.gov. If you have any questions about our investments in our state’s criminal justice system, we want to hear from you. Give my office a call at 402-471-2244 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.