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June 20, 2011

Nebraska yet another state struggling with high prison population and its costs

As detailed in this effective local article, headlined "Prisons losing crowding battle," the Cornhusker State is struggling with prison over-population problems.  Here are some of the particulars from an article that effectively details one state's on-going struggle with crowded and costly prisons:

A deluge of new prison inmates — many convicted of sex crimes — is overwhelming the state's effort to relieve overcrowding in the state corrections facilities. The state has been ramping up a program to accelerate parole for short-term, low-risk inmates and reduce overcrowding, which has hovered around 140 percent of capacity for several months.

But record-high admissions to Nebraska prisons, along with still-transitioning rehabilitative programs, have left those efforts well short of expectations. Instead of populations falling at the nine state correctional facilities, numbers have risen in the past few months, reaching 4,482, or 141.17 percent of capacity, last week. State prison officials spoke last year of paroling more than 260 inmates by July 1, but the number of inmates on parole has risen by only 40 since March 1.

Bob Houston, state corrections director, remains confident his department can reach a goal of reducing the state's prison population by 545 inmates, or about 12 percent, over the next two years....

State officials, needing to close a nearly $1 billion budget gap this spring, were counting on faster progress to parole more short-term inmates, providing significant cost savings. A total of $6.7 million in savings was projected over the next two years by paroling 545 inmates.

It costs about $29,000 a year to house an offender behind bars, compared with $5,000 per year for intense parole supervision. Houston and others say parole, coupled with treatment, is more effective at avoiding repeat crimes. The expected reduction had another anticipated benefit: heading off construction of a $125-million-plus state prison.

When the prison population reaches 140 percent of capacity, it triggers a report to the governor, who can declare an emergency.  The figure also can be a benchmark federal judges use to order construction of new prison cells....

The growth in the number of sex offenders sent to prison appears to be a major culprit in the prison population dilemma.  Such offenders generally serve longer sentences and are paroled at a much lower frequency than other inmates, exacerbating the overcrowding problem.

In the past couple of years, sex offenders have supplanted drug dealers and drug users as the largest group in Nebraska prisons.  A sex offense was the most serious crime committed by nearly 19 percent of all state inmates.  Assault followed at 13 percent, with felony drug crimes third at 12 percent.

Officials said prison alternatives such as drug court and community corrections have reduced the number of inmates sentenced for drug crimes.  But while one in five inmates is in prison for sex crimes, only about one in 30 offenders released on parole last year, or 28 in 797, was a sex offender.

That is despite a low rate of recidivism for sex offenders.  A 2002 U.S. Department of Justice study found that 5.3 percent of men who committed rape or sexual assault had reoffended within three years of being released from prison.  Esther Casmer, the state parole board chairwoman, disagreed that the low rate of parole for sex offenders was related to any cultural fear of such criminals.

Casmer said her board is often presented with parole candidates who have either refused treatment for sex offenses or have been unable to get treatment because of waiting lists in the state prison system.  Casmer said she won't parole anyone who hasn't shown through treatment that his risk of reoffending has been reduced.

June 20, 2011 at 08:59 AM | Permalink

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'Esther Casmer, the state parole board chairwoman, disagreed that the low rate of parole for sex offenders was related to any cultural fear of such criminals.'

Say what they like but until more empirical based studies are published bureaucratic authortities will continue to deny what appears to self evident, that they make it up to support unfounded prejudices.

'Casmer said she won't parole anyone who hasn't shown through treatment that his risk of reoffending has been reduced.'

Me thinks lack of knowledge and the will to do anything about it are the more likely reasons in this case rather than evaluating the risks case by case.

Posted by: james | Jun 20, 2011 6:40:07 PM

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