Nebraska senators to seek more prison oversight

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Nebraska lawmakers are looking at ways to increase oversight of the state's troubled prison system, possibly by creating an independent watchdog position or by having the department answer to the Legislature.Some senators are already drafting legislation after learning that prison officials knowingly miscalculated sentences for hundreds of inmates.The Department of Correctional Services came under fire after lawmakers realized that state officials failed to follow two Nebraska Supreme Court rulings that explained how to determine prison sentences for those who have to serve a mandatory minimum.Nearly 600 sentences had to be recalculated after the problem was revealed earlier this summer by the Omaha World-Herald. Most of the sentences that had to be extended were for inmates still in prison, but dozens had to be located because they were released too early.Several key lawmakers said they're likely to act once the Legislature reconvenes in January.Senators could create an independent inspector general that would oversee corrections. Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha said he's looking at that option and may introduce a bill next year.The inspector general would operate within the state ombudsman's office — which answers to the Legislature — similar to a child welfare watchdog position that lawmakers created in 2012 to address problems at the Department of Health and Human Services."It's another set of eyes that can oversee corrections and alert the Legislature and the public about what's going on," Mello said.Unlike the state ombudsman's office, which responds to complaints, Mello said the inspector general would be able to launch investigations of its own. It also could ensure that prison officials are following state laws and court rulings, he said.Mello said lawmakers may also debate whether the department director should be appointed by the state's governor.At least one senator wants to act before January. State Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha is pushing for a special session to address the state prison situation. However, Gov. Dave Heineman and most senators don't see a need for a special session, said Heineman spokeswoman Kathie Osterman.Even though he's leaving office in January because of term limits, Ashford said his staff is drafting a bill that would create an oversight commission for the Department of Correctional Services. Ashford said he's doing so in anticipation of a special session or, at a minimum, to provide lawmakers with an idea they can discuss next year.The commission would include representatives from different parts of Nebraska's criminal justice system, including the state parole and probation offices, prosecutors, judges, victims' advocates, law enforcement and lawmakers. Ashford said many judges he's spoken with are outraged that their sentences weren't carried out as imposed. A similar commission was proposed in a prisons bill that Ashford filed last year, but it was removed before the law passed."For decades, the Department of Corrections has worked in a vacuum — out of sight, out of mind," Ashford said. "It's set apart from the criminal justice agencies that you'd think would be working with them."Ashford, a Democratic congressional candidate, said he's willing to hold off on a special session until after the November election to avoid the appearance that he's trying to gain attention for his campaign. But he argued that lawmakers need to act before he and 16 other experienced senators leave office in January.Ashford said his office has worked for 18 months on prison-related issues, including a recent overhaul of Nebraska's juvenile justice services.A special committee that was investigating Nebraska's prisons before the sentencing scandal will now delve into that problem as well.Bob Houston, the state's former prisons director, will testify before the committee Friday. The committee was originally assigned to look at the case of Nikko Jenkins, who killed four people in Omaha after he was released from prison and now faces the death penalty. But members will also question Houston about how the sentencing debacle happened, said Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, the committee chairman.Lathrop said lawmakers ought to consider extending the term of his committee beyond this year, so lawmakers can continue to monitor the state prisons. Lathrop is leaving office in January because of term limits but said senators need to keep watch over the department. Lawmakers took similar action during the abuse scandal at the Beatrice State Developmental Center.Lathrop, a Democrat often at odds with the Republican governor, said a new governor could also make a difference in the way the department is managed."What we need is someone who's more hands-on with respect to running a department like Corrections," Lathrop said.