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March 23, 2022

Nebraska having a bad time sorting through how to apply good-time credits

I just came across this interesting recent local article from Nebraska, headlined "Prison officials wrote a bill to release prisoners earlier. They’re applying the law in a way that doesn’t." The story it tells is yet another reminder of the myriad challenges that can attend effectively reforming and effectively administering our sentencing and corrections systems. Here is part of the story:

In 2011, the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services wrote a bill that would allow well-behaved prisoners the chance to shorten their time behind bars.  Eleven years later, that same department is applying the resulting law in a way neither the state senator who sponsored the bill nor the then-director of Nebraska’s prisons intended.

Prison officials now shorten a prisoner’s final release date, but never change the day that prisoner becomes eligible for parole.  The result: Thousands of prisoners sentenced under the law have potentially stayed in prison days, weeks or months longer than the law’s authors intended.

The debate over semantics — namely, the meaning of three dozen words buried in a state law — has made its way to the Nebraska Supreme Court, whose decision could shorten the stays of thousands of people in the state’s chronically overcrowded prisons....

On one side: The department argues that it’s properly following the 11-year-old law when it comes to calculating when a prisoner is eligible for parole. If there’s a flaw, it’s in the language of the law itself, state lawyers have argued in court.

On the other: Robert Heist II, who has been imprisoned since 2016, argues that the department is misreading the law and delaying parole eligibility.

In some cases, prisoners end up being released with no supervision — “jamming out” in prison-speak — before they even become parole eligible....

The question now before the Nebraska Supreme Court: Should the three days a month earned for good behavior be applied to the date when a prisoner first becomes eligible for parole? The state senator who sponsored the bill and the former head of prisons say yes.  Making prisoners parole eligible sooner was an intended result of the bill, both Council and Houston told the Flatwater Free Press.  “I introduced this bill as a means of providing additional ways to reduce the prison population and get people parole eligible,” Council said in an interview....

But the state is simply following the letter of the law, state lawyers have argued to the Nebraska Supreme Court.  That law as written, they say, doesn’t allow for the extra good time days to go toward parole eligibility....

This interpretation of the law has potentially affected thousands of prisoners who could have had at least a little time shaved off their sentences. But the most egregious cases are those prisoners who “jam out” before even becoming parole eligible.

In 2019, the department told Heist that 62 prisoners at the time had tentative release dates that preceded their parole eligibility because of their earned good time.  As of March 2022, the prison’s roster listed as many as 306 individuals sentenced since 2011 who were released before they became eligible for parole.

“When you become parole eligible after you’ve done your sentence, that doesn’t make any sense,” Heist said in an interview.  Those prisoners — whose sentences should have included a shot at parole — become “guaranteed jam outs,” Heist said.

Under questioning at the Nebraska Supreme Court, the state’s lawyers didn’t dispute that inverted sentences — when mandatory release actually comes before parole eligibility — can and do happen.  “Yes, it is possible that [inverted sentences] can occur,” Scott Straus, assistant attorney general for the state, said during oral arguments.  “However, the plain language of the statute does not let us even get to whether that result is absurd or not.”

March 23, 2022 at 04:55 PM | Permalink


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