Special committee approved to oversee Corrections

The Legislature will establish another committee to oversee the state Department of Correctional Services under a resolution adopted by the Legislature May 18.

<a href='http://news.legislature.ne.gov/dist10' target='_blank' title='Link to the website of Sen. Bob Krist'>Sen. Bob Krist</a>
Sen. Bob Krist

LR127, as introduced by Omaha Sen. Bob Krist, creates a new Nebraska Justice System Special Oversight Committee. The committee will continue to study the issues addressed by previous investigative committees and review the role of state agencies and their involvement in the justice system.

An Executive Board amendment, adopted 26-7, changed the proposed committee from one with investigative authority to one with oversight authority, removing the committee’s ability to issue subpoenas. It also established the chairperson of the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee as chair of the special oversight committee.

The Legislature had authorized the Department of Correctional Services Special Investigative Committee in 2013 to study the circumstances of Nikko Jenkins’ incarceration and release, as well as the administration of good time laws, policies relating to inmate segregation and the availability of rehabilitative and mental health programs. The committee was re-authorized in 2015 to continue its work until Jan. 19, 2017.

Despite the work of the previous investigative committees, Krist said, issues such as staffing, overcrowding, mental and behavioral health, programming and restrictive housing continue to plague the department.

“We still see them putting people in jail cells together that should never even pass in the night,” he said. “The strength of LR127 is that it takes members from all of our jurisdictions to address these issues.”

The Executive Board will appoint seven members of the Legislature to serve on the committee. It will brief the Judiciary and Appropriations committees in December 2017 and 2018 and issue a final report of recommendations to the Legislature before disbanding Jan. 19, 2019.

O’Neill Sen. Tyson Larson opposed the resolution, saying that the department still is implementing recommendations from previous investigative committees. Patience and faith in Department Director Scott Frakes is what is needed at this point, he said.

“They are doing what we’ve asked them to do and sometimes it takes time to continue on that path,” Larson said. “[Frakes] was very clear when he said that another one of these committees will just continue to take time and resources away from the department that could be used to fix the issues that are there.”

Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln, who served as chairperson of the former special investigative committee, supported LR127. She said the issue is not whether there is faith in Frakes’ ability, but the fact that the problems facing the department have become more serious and pronounced.

“I don’t have faith that we have the necessary resources to help [Frakes] do his job,” she said. “There is continuing overcrowding, which leads to understaffing, which leads to a difficulty in hiring sufficient people and potential harm to the staff.”

Lincoln Sen. Kate Bolz also spoke in favor of the resolution. She said it is the Legislature’s responsibility to take a broader view of the issues facing the department. Not taking into account how the various state agencies impact the department and incarceration is short-sighted, Bolz said.

The Legislature voted 28-11 to adopt the resolution.

On May 23, the Executive Board appointed the following seven members of the Legislature to serve on the committee:
• Sen. Laura Ebke of Crete (as chairperson);
• Sen. Kate Bolz of Lincoln;
• Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon;
• Sen. Suzanne Geist of Lincoln;
• Sen. Mike Hilgers of Lincoln;
• Sen. Dan Hughes of Venango; and
• Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha.

The committee will brief the Judiciary and Appropriations committees in December 2017 and 2018 and issue a final report of recommendations to the Legislature before disbanding Jan. 19, 2019.

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