Prison focus must be on Nebraska

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

You’ll probably see a lot of national news stories about a federal criminal justice bill designed to counteract the excesses of the nation’s failed war on drugs.

The Senate passed the bill Tuesday, the House is expected to do the same this week, and President Donald Trump says he’s anxious to sign reform into law.

Critics contend the war on drugs was declared as a political ploy, even a racist effort, especially in the case of marijuana, to make criminals of minorities like Hispanics and African Americans.

As a result, prisons are full of nonviolent offenders, some imprisoned for life under “three strikes” laws, unnecessarily costing taxpayers billions of dollars.

The reform has drawn praise from the right — Trump tweeted it will “keep our communities safer, and provide hope and a second chance to those who earn it. In addition to everything else, billions of dollars will be saved. I look forward to signing this into law!”

On the left, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., said the nation’s prisons are full of Americans who are struggling with mental illness and addiction, and who are overwhelmingly poor. The criminal justice system “feeds on certain communities and not on others” and offers a step toward “healing” of those communities.

The change is definitely a step in the right direction, but it’s a baby step. It will affect only the 10 percent of offenders who are in federal prison.

More meaningful, and more urgent, is the problem faced by Nebraska’s prison system, recently criticized over the withholding of a report on a riot at the Tecumseh prison.

McCook residents might be thankful they weren’t chosen as home for that prison, instead becoming home to the Work Ethic Camp, as a result of the influence of hometown former senator and governor, Ben Nelson.

Prison overcrowding has diluted the WEC’s original purpose, turning it into more of a regular branch of the prison system than an educational facility.

Overcrowding is so bad that the Legislature imposed a July 1, 2020, deadline for the corrections department to lower its inmate population to 140 percent of what its facilities were designed to hold.

Failing that, the department will enter an automatic “overcrowding emergency” that will force state officials to consider paroling all eligible inmates right away.

As of last week, according to the Associated Press, Nebraska had 5,338 inmates in facilities designed for 3,375, about 157 percent of design capacity.

Early parole can be a false economy, however, when inmates re-offend and get sent back to prison.

A group of senators is proposing approval of medical marijuana, with recreational marijuana likely to follow eventually should the first effort be successful.

Arguments that marijuana is a gateway drug aside — other studies point to alcohol as the true gateway drug — Nebraskans must make the tough decision of who deserves to go to prison for what activity.

As one official put it, do we send the state prisoners we are mad at, or prisoners we are scared of?

It’s the dangerous, scary prisoners who deserve first dibs on state prison cells.

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