LINCOLN — Nebraska could significantly reduce prison crowding by sentencing more nonviolent felons to probation instead of prison and by finding alternatives to incarceration for inmates serving sentences of less than a year.
Those were two takeaways from a report Tuesday by prison reform authorities from the Council of State Governments on why Nebraska’s prison system is so overcrowded.
State prisons, as of July 31, held 57 percent more inmates than their design capacity, housing 5,130 prisoners in facilities designed to hold 3,275.
The governor and state lawmakers invited the CSG Justice Center to Nebraska. The group has helped more than a dozen other states adopt “justice reinvestment” policies that find cost-effective alternatives to building new prisons.
On Tuesday, the group outlined preliminary findings about what’s driving the state’s prison population to continue to climb even as the state crime rate drops.
Among the findings:
— Judges in Douglas, Lancaster and Sarpy Counties are much more likely to sentence felons to jail or prison, rather than less-costly probation supervision.
As a whole, Nebraska judges utilized probation 22 percent of the time, compared with 16 percent of the time in Douglas County and 17 percent of the time in Lancaster County. By contrast, the national average for probation sentences was 27 percent, and judges in Idaho and Kansas utilized probation sentences at more than double that rate, 58 percent and 69 percent of the time, respectively.
If judges in the state’s most populous counties sentenced felons to probation at the same rate as judges nationwide, admissions to state prisons could be cut by 500 inmates per year.
— The number of inmates sentenced to short prison terms, of a year or less, has increased by 30 percent over the past decade, and now constitute about one-third of all new admissions.
Such inmates get no rehabilitative programming and have an average stay of 4.8 months behind bars. The state, the report suggested, could find less-costly and more effective alternatives to the $11 million cost per year of housing such short-term inmates.
— The state could trim more prison costs by updating its statutes for felony theft. Currently, the threshold for a theft to be considered a felony is $500 worth of goods, a figure that hasn’t been updated for inflation since 1992. About 175 inmates a year are sent to prison for thefts of between $500 and $1,500, costing the state $8.5 million in incarceration costs. Fewer inmates would go to prison if those thefts were classified as misdemeanors, instead of felony crimes.
The report was delivered to the Nebraska Justice Reinvestment Working Group, a group chaired by Gov. Dave Heineman that will consider the recommendations in crafting a state plan to address prison reform.
At least a couple of judges and a prosecutor during Tuesday’s meeting questioned whether urban judges were sentencing felons to jail and prison at a higher rate than others in the state.
Lancaster County District Judge John Colborn said that if figures for participants in drug courts (85) and in pretrial diversion programs (70) were figured in, that would show a much higher rate of nonprison and nonjail sentences in his county.
But the chief justice of the Nebraska Supreme Court, Mike Heavican, called the finding “surprising” and said it called for a “deeper look” into the figures to determine if judges are sentencing differently in the state’s urban areas compared to rural areas.
The CSG report indicated that part of the increase in the state’s prison population was due to criminal penalties increased by the State Legislature for possession and manufacture of methamphetamine, drunken driving and weapons crimes.
Heineman said Nebraskans overwhelmingly supported such get-tough-on-crime measures, and they do not want to see the measures rescinded.
But, he said, if the figures show that judges in one part of the state are giving longer sentences when the same, nonviolent crimes are resulting in probation sentences from judges elsewhere, then that’s something to look into.
Heineman said there are still a whole host of prison reform issues that warrant more study, so the state can craft the best prison reform plan possible.
The Justice Reinvestment Group is scheduled to meet again in October and November, before providing recommendations to the Legislature in January. A final report is not due until September 2015.