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LINCOLN, Neb. (Nebraska Examiner) — The Nebraska prison system would get funding to test and verify the effectiveness of its rehabilitation programs under a bill given first-round approval Thursday by state lawmakers.

Legislative Bill 896 would also help determine whether the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services is offering enough programs to turn inmate lives around.

Repeat offenses rising

The advancement of the proposal comes as the recidivism rate – the percentage of inmates who return to Nebraska prisons within three years after their release – has been rising over recent years.

In fiscal year 2009-10, about 27.7% of all prison inmates released that year committed crimes that sent them back behind bars within three years. That rate rose to 30.2% in 2017-18, the most recent statistics available.

Effective rehab programs, State Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha said Thursday, would increase public safety by reducing repeat crimes.

A state law was passed in 2015 to require state corrections to conduct regular evaluations of prison programs, but it hasn’t been fully followed, state lawmakers were told Thursday. The law sought reviews of programs that address substance abuse, anger management, sex offenses and other issues. But the department lacked funds to hire consultants to do the work, and there was evidence of only one evaluation done internally.

Ensure evaluations

Lathrop, who has led legislative investigations into problems with state prisons, introduced LB 896 to ensure that the evaluations are done.

Under the bill, an academic institution would evaluate the programs to see if they are following best practices, are cost-effective, and are accessible to prison inmates.

Lathrop said required rehab programs aren’t always available where inmates are being housed.

The bill would provide $1.1 million over the next two years to evaluate the rehab programs. Lathrop said the University of Nebraska at Omaha is well-equipped to do the studies and might be able to do them for half that expense.

Limited space

He said Nebraskans expect inmates sentenced to prison to be rehabilitated before they are released back into society, and the bill will help ensure that happens.

Doug Koebernick, the State Legislature’s inspector general for corrections, said that while 800 prison inmates have been recommended for domestic violence programs, space in the program is limited, and the class is offered only at certain facilities. There are also questions about how effective the agency’s domestic violence prevention programs are, he added.

Koebernick said effective rehab programs should reduce the recidivism rate.

“If we’re providing programming that’s following the correct models and is evidence-based, one would think you would have better outcomes … and less people will come back to prison,” he said.

Prison officials have said that Nebraska’s overcrowded prisons — the most overcrowded in the nation — and staff shortages have made it harder to provide rehab programs. Govt. Pete Ricketts has proposed building a modern replacement for the aging Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln that officials say would have more space for rehabilitation work.

Nebraska Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Nebraska Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Cate Folsom for questions: info@nebraskaexaminer.com. Follow Nebraska Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

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