We Need Reform and Smart Investments, Not Another Prison


Danielle Conrad
By 
Danielle Conrad
ACLU of Nebraska

Just four years ago, Nebraska prison officials projected they were on track to significantly reduce Nebraska’s crisis level of prison overcrowding by the start of the new decade. Instead, we enter 2021 with the situation largely unchanged and Gov. Pete Ricketts asking taxpayers to reward that failure with a $230 million commitment for a new prison.

Nebraskans are rightly skeptical. And like so many issues, our elected officials could learn a thing or two by listening to their constituents.

A 2020 poll of Nebraskans from across the state showed most are worried about the amount of money being discussed for this massive new prison, including a majority of Republicans, Independents and Democrats. Most agreed reducing the amount of people in prison was important. And nearly all of them supported changes to the system that would divert people with mental illnesses who commit nonviolent crimes to treatment centers instead of prison – consider that last point in context with statistics showing more than 80% of Nebraskans in custody have a mental illness.

The overall results shouldn’t be a surprise given corrections expenditures ballooning past other community needs over the last 20 years. Nebraskans understand that adding a new prison to the budget would be a grave fiscal and moral mistake.

Fortunately, the final decision on a new prison rests with state senators, not Gov. Ricketts or Nebraska Department of Correctional Services Director Scott Frakes. Legislators can save taxpayers money, achieve better outcomes and advance our shared public safety goals by wasting no more time on this prison plan and setting sights on what we know works: bipartisan reforms enacted in other states and on the federal level, combined with smart justice investments.

Early signs indicate state senators are ready to approach this with creativity, nonpartisanship and an appropriate focus of both community safety and fiscal restraint. Sen. Mike Flood of Norfolk has introduced a bill requiring judges to start announcing the taxpayer impact of a prison sentence, a measure that would no doubt help incentivize diversion. Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln is pursuing increased transparency in prosecutors’ offices with a bill that could help address both our overcrowding crisis and the glaring racial inequalities throughout our system. We’ve also seen thoughtful bills focused on sentencing reform, diversion, mental health support and addiction services. Those too must be part of the conversation.

A variety of factors led us to this point so it must be a shared solution, one that increases diversion, strengthens re-entry, ends the racial disparities and centers community needs. Instead of building more prison beds at a massive expense, it’s time to build a smart justice approach. If our leaders choose to listen to Nebraskans, I am confident they are more than up to the task.

Danielle Conrad is the executive director of the ACLU of Nebraska. For more from the organization, visit aclunebraska.org.

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