By Governor Pete Ricketts
Prisons play a key role in Nebraska’s criminal justice system by protecting public safety and preparing inmates for return to our society. Under the leadership of Director Scott Frakes over the past two years, the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services (NDCS) has been making great strides and working to better achieve their mission. From expanding facility capacity to automating sentence calculation processes and expanding programming, the agency has been adopting data-driven practices to modernize its operations and facilities.
While Scott and his team have accomplished much over the past couple years, their efforts haven’t come without support from numerous partnerships.
To realize many of these changes, we have taken an “all hands on deck” approach by working with all three branches of state government on several initiatives. Since 2014, Nebraska’s three branches of government have collaborated with the Council of State Governments Justice Center on justice reinvestment initiatives, which included the successful passage of sentencing reform with LB 605 (2015). In August, NDCS announced they had successfully completed implementation of their justice reinvestment initiatives. These included risk/needs assessments and programming reviews to protect public safety and help prepare inmates for reentry into the community upon completion of their sentence.
Successful outcomes for NDCS also require proper funding. Since entering office I have made it a priority to adequately fund our corrections system. I worked with the Legislature in 2015 to secure 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. This year, 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.
We are beginning to see tangible results from these investments. Eight of our ten facilities are successfully filling vacancies and retaining staff members. The agency has put more of a focus on leveraging data to manage the prison population and better deliver programming. This year, NDCS completed over 7,000 risk-needs assessments on inmates to determine where they should be housed and what programming can help prepare them for reentry. Last month, the agency opened a new 100-bed dormitory at their community corrections facility in Lincoln, which is preparing inmates to return back into society.
While we continue to see great progress, we still have work to do. Staffing at two of the state’s maximum security facilities continues to present a challenge. To address this, Director Frakes recently instituted a new hiring bonus for corrections officers at these facilities along with raises for more experienced workers. These bonuses and incentives aim to decrease the amount of overtime required by the current workforce. If these strategies succeed, a higher level of staffing will alleviate pressure on our workforce, allowing our officers to better focus on their jobs, families, and personal well-being. We want our corrections officers to go to work each day feeling secure and supported in their environment as they protect public safety.
Hiring more corrections officers not only benefits our loyal officers, but also saves the taxpayer money as well. Every vacant position which is filled by a full-time team member rather than overtime saves an estimated $13,000 per year.
Looking to the future, we also continue to put a focus on programming to prepare inmates for their return to the community. More than nine in ten people currently in our prisons will reenter society. One program new to NDCS is titled Thinking for a Change. It is helping inmates to recognize criminal thinking and replace them with constructive thinking and problem-solving skills. The program aims to reduce recidivism (the rate of reoffending) as well as lower incidents of inmate misconduct in our facilities.
We’ve also seen great community support for innovative partnerships thanks to the philanthropic support of Nebraskans like Rhonda and Howard Hawks as well as Ken Stinson and others. Last fall, NDCS launched a new partnership with Defy Ventures, a nonprofit organization which transforms the lives of individuals with criminal records by hosting entrepreneurship, employment, and character development training programs. Defy Ventures currently operates in three NDCS facilities: the Nebraska State Penitentiary, the Omaha Correctional Center, and the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution. By providing this opportunity, Defy not only equips inmates with multiple skills they can use once they return home, but it also makes our prison environments healthier and safer.
Thinking for a Change and Defy Ventures are just two examples of the innovative programming changes NDCS has made. These changes are evidence-based and are helping accomplish our goal of rehabilitating the individual rather than simply holding onto them until their sentence is finished. Ultimately, this approach helps ensure inmates have a constructive pathway to reentering society rather than a quick return to a taxpayer-funded prison. These programs, combined with increased housing and new hiring initiatives, are building a bright future for NDCS.