Just when you thought you’d read everything there was to write about problems with the Nebraska prison system, new revelations indicate a nagging intrusion from the governor’s office.
Parole Board Chairwoman Esther Casmer of Omaha has told a special legislative committee investigating the scandal-plagued Department of Corrections that she felt threatened by comments from Gov. Dave Heineman’s Chief of Staff Larry Bare. Both Heineman and Bare deny pressuring the Nebraska Parole Board to release unqualified – and sometimes violent – prisoners to relieve overcrowding.
Casmer’s allegations were corroborated by retired board member James Pearson of Lincoln, a former state trooper. Both said that former corrections director Bob Houston would visit Casmer’s office frequently and that he indicated he was visiting with Bare daily. Bare also met with Casmer and Pearson at least once. Nebraska’s prisons have long been overcrowded and the state could be forced by the United States Justice Department to build more rooms to accommodate the overload. The state could also be sued by any number of inmates on a basis of cruel and unusual punishment.
For his part, Bare has said he never threatened Casmer with losing her job if a parolee messes up and gets arrested and imprisoned again. He said he urged the board to work more efficiently. But Casmer claimed that Bare made it clear that the board was not paroling enough prisoners. As a result, prisoners were often let go before they had completed their rehabilitation. In some cases, prison rules were changed or overlooked to get more inmates out the door.
The whole thing drew public attention earlier this year when it was learned that prison officials had mistakenly miscalculated sentences of several hundred inmates and released them from custody too soon. That was followed with revelations that inmate Nikko Jenkins was denied the mental health treatment he repeatedly sought and was paroled anyway. He is awaiting sentencing on a conviction that he killed four people in Omaha within days of his release. Several high-ranking prison officials retired rather than being fired for the mess.
Some lawmakers and Democratic Party officials had called for criminal charges against those responsible, but Attorney General Jon Bruning and Lancaster County Attorney Joe Kelly concluded that there was an abundance of ineptitude, incompetence and neglect, but no criminal intent. Boy, that’s reassuring.
I have seen the Nebraska Parole Board in action. Esther Casmer is a tough cookie and not afraid to stare tough guys down and tell them they aren’t ready to leave. Even Heineman admitted that she’s a strong woman. Likewise, Pearson is a stand-up guy. I can’t imagine that they made any of this up. But, with Heineman leaving office in a few weeks — and taking Bare with him – it’s a moot point.
The chair of the special legislative committee, Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, is term-limited and won’t be back. Here’s hoping someone else on the committee will pick up the ball and keep the pressure on the Legislature and the Executive Branch to find a solution.
If they don’t want to spend hundreds of millions to build more beds, maybe they will finally take a look at alternative programs to deal with certain offenders. It’s working in Texas and other states. There is an urgent need to change the culture of the system as well as the people responsible, from judges and prosecutors down to the folks that run the prisons.
Sorry Pete Ricketts, the mess is going to fall in your governor-elect lap. Do the right thing.
By J.L. Schmidt, Statehouse Correspondent