Nebraska's state senators need to hear from Nebraskans who want smart justice reform, not historic spending on more iron and concrete.
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State spending on Nebraska's prisons has outpaced growth in other major state funding areas for decades. In fact, Nebraska's growth in prison spending is among the highest in the nation. Despite this ever-increasing budget and decades of construction, our prison system is among the most overcrowded in the nation. Some facilities hold between 2-3x as many people as they were designed for.
How did we get here? Reasons include the failed war on drugs, aggressive prosecutors, institutional racism, growing sentences and a failure to prioritize community needs through addiction services, mental health support and community investment.
The solution is a smart justice approach, but some officials have another plan. Outgoing Gov. Pete Ricketts wants to shovel $270 million taxpayer dollars into a massive new prison. The good news is that it's not his decision — it's the Nebraska Legislature's. And the bottom line remains that Nebraska needs smart justice reform, not a new prison.
- In the spring of 2021 and 2022, state senators set aside millions of taxpayer dollars that could be used for a new prison only IF they approve the spending later. They've essentially socked away hundreds of millions of dollars that could go to our communities and solutions instead of mass incarceration.
- They also failed to pass any smart justice reforms after a yearlong study that pointed to a clear need for smart justice reform. The comprehensive study led by the Crime and Justice Institute pointed to modest but meaningful reforms that could help address our prison challenges, but some state senators said anything related to sentencing was off the table.
- Newly elected officials must prioritize reform. Our new state senators and new governor will inherit this prison crisis. They need to address it. We have decades of evidence showing we cannot build our way out of these problems. It’s time for a new approach that is evidence-based, fair, and works for all of us — a smart justice approach.
Recent polling shows Nebraskans agree, we’re talking about spending too much money on a new prison when we should be prioritizing reform that meets mental health and addiction needs with a public health response. Now, it’s time to take that message to our state senators.
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Many of our sister states have faced similar challenges and found success with bipartisan reform. Instead of wasting money on a new prison, they saved money and achieved better outcomes. The same commitment to charting a new path happened on the federal level in 2018 with the First Step Act. Bottom line, there is support across the political spectrum and those very policies can be implemented in Nebraska.
The campaign for Smart Justice aims to reduce jail and prison populations and combat racial disparities in the criminal justice system. If each reform is adopted, fewer people would be in our prisons and Nebraska taxpayers would save money. Instead of funding a new prison, we must invest in these reforms.
More people are spending more of their lives in prison than at any point in United States history; this can be connected to harsh sentencing laws and practices that aren’t effective and destroy a person’s chance at rehabilitation, reunification with family, and reintegration into society.
The Nebraska Legislature has passed many bills that either increased penalties for existing crimes or created new offenses. In a 2016 report, we drew a direct line between a decade of legislative action and an increase to our prison population of 1,000 people. Extreme sentencing laws that tie judges’ hands don’t make Nebraskans safer, they just fill up prisons faster. State senators must begin to undo the damage.
Parole & Release:
The criminal justice system’s failure to release people who have gone through rehabilitation and are ready to return to their communities has kept our prisons overcrowded. Use of parole, which allows people to be released from prison before their maximum sentence release date, has declined in Nebraska. Nebraska’s prison system has said that 804 or one out of every seven people in custody were eligible for parole but hadn’t been approved for release. Especially amid a prison overcrowding emergency, we need parole reform so people can lead productive lives in our community and not live in limbo at the mercy of the parole board.
Prosecutors have unlimited power to push for more punishment and are among the most influential actors in our criminal justice system. Instead of getting to the root cause of a crime, prosecutors focus their energy on obtaining convictions and securing prison sentences. Many prosecutors are resistant to supporting reform efforts that would reduce incarceration and create more effective, less costly alternatives to jails and prisons. Forward-thinking prosecutors are essential in reconstructing this culture and carrying out new strategies to reduce the prison population.
Nebraska lawmakers need to establish and invest in a robust re-entry agenda so that returning community members can be supported and move on with their lives in a constructive, law-abiding manner. If prison rehabilitates people, services must extend beyond prison walls. We need sensible legislation that will address punitive barriers and restrictions so that Nebraskans with arrest and conviction records can find stability and success after incarceration. Taking these steps will lower recidivism rates and reduce the prison population as a whole.
Alternatives to Incarceration:
We need our state leaders to prioritize diversion programs. These programs have helped communities address mental illness, substance use disorders, and homelessness outside of the criminal justice system. We must continue opting for less expensive and more effective options like specialty courts, expanded mental health and drug treatment programs, and housing support. Drug treatment and affordable housing services have a proven success record and will help foster healthier communities. These alternatives are more cost-effective than mass incarceration, and participants have lower recidivism rates.
- "Nebraska Has Much Work to Do Before it Contemplates a New Prison" Omaha World-Herald
- "Midlands Voices: Fixing Prison Crisis Requires a New Approach to Criminal Justice" Omaha World-Herald
- "New Prison Should Wait Until Other Efforts Tried" Lincoln Journal-Star
- "Costly New Prison isn't the Solution Nebraska Needs" Omaha World-Herald
- "We Need Reform and Smart Investments, Not Another Prison" Omaha Daily Record
- "Build Solutions, Not Walls" Lincoln Journal Star