Nebraska's state senators will likely make a final decision about a new prison in 2022. Before then, they need to hear from Nebraskans who want smart justice reform, not more iron and concrete.
Here are the basics of the current situation:
- Despite decades of construction and an ever-increasing budget, Nebraska’s prison system is the second-most overcrowded in the nation. Some facilities are holding between 2-3x as many people as they were designed for.
- Notably, crime has fallen over the last 20 years while our prison population has spiked. In an effort to keep up, state spending on our prisons has outpaced growth in other major state funding areas and overall budget growth.
- The cause of this crisis is multifaceted. It includes things like the failed war on drugs, aggressive prosecutors, institutional racism, and a failure to prioritize community needs through addiction services, mental health support and community investment.
- The solution is a smart justice approach, but Gov. Pete Ricketts has other plans. Instead of investing in Nebraskans, Gov. Ricketts wants to shovel taxpayer funds into a $230 million new prison. If state senators approve the funding, they’ll be making a grave fiscal and moral mistake.
Nebraskans agree that government officials need to reject this proposal for what it is: a prison that will burden our kids with debt by throwing money into a broken system. State leaders should vote in favor of smart justice reforms, not another prison.
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The new prison is far from a done deal. We must keep up the pressure to stop this harmful project from moving forward.
- In the spring of 2021, state senators pressed pause on this issue through a “compromise,” setting aside millions of taxpayer dollars that could be used for a new prison only IF they approve the spending in 2022. They also funded an update to the corrections master plan, set aside money for reform, and covered the cost of designing a potential new prison for if they choose to invest in mass incarceration instead of solutions in 2022.
- This year, we’ll get results of key studies that should push state senators toward smart justice reform, not a new prison. A comprehensive study of our criminal legal system is now underway by the Crime and Justice Institute, a nonpartisan organization that has prevented the need for prison construction in other states. It’s happening in tandem with a study on the conditions at the Nebraska State Penitentiary. Most of the facility was built after 1980, but Gov. Ricketts and prison officials have pivoted to claiming a new prison would replace the “crumbling” Nebraska State Penitentiary because they know it’s an easier sell even if it isn’t true.
- In 2022, state senators must make pivotal decisions, including a final determination on a new prison. Throughout this year and the 2022 legislative session, these leaders must continue to hear that Nebraskans want smart justice reform, not a new prison.
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.
Call or email your senator. Let them know you want a firm commitment that they will not approve the new prison plan.
Here are some other options:
- Consider getting organized and asking for time with senators to discuss their ideas for smart criminal justice reform.
- Help spread the word about smart justice reform by contacting your local newspaper and writing a letter to the editor. Write a letter now!
- Social media is a great way to help spread the word. Here are some graphics and tweets to share on your page.
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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.