The following editorial first appeared in the Lincoln Journal Star.
The revelation that staffers at the state Department of Correctional Services viewed instructions from the Nebraska Supreme Court as merely optional is mind-boggling, jaw-dropping and outrageous.
As Sen. Brad Ashford said, “There aren’t enough words in the English language to describe what a bad thing this is.”
This was a breakdown of government at a basic level — one that involves public safety.
Taxpayers spend millions on the justice system. Judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys devote careers to it. State legislators spend countless hours debating changes in it.
Yet, email exchanges made public after requests from the Journal Star and other media make clear that staffers intentionally ignored the court’s instructions on how to calculate sentences. The result was that hundreds of convicts were released too early.
In one email, prison records manager Jeannene Douglass wrote, "Linda (Assistant Attorney General Linda Willard) asked me if we would continue to calculate the sentence in the right way or go with what the Supreme Court says. I said, and she supported me, that we should do what is in the inmate's best interest, that being, continue calculating the sentences the way we have always done it."
Douglass should have known better.
Everyone in the department should have known better.
Lawmakers and other state officials are wrestling with how to deal with the breakdown.
One possibility worth exploring is whether judges should appoint a special prosecutor to investigate whether criminal charges should be filed in the scandal, as suggested by Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha.
From the Journal Star editorial board’s perspective, perhaps the best option would be to rely on the Department of Correctional Services Special Investigative Committee chaired by Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha.
Lathrop’s ability to investigate complex and emotional issues was demonstrated in his handling of the special legislative committee that investigated the Beatrice State Developmental Center.
The special legislative session after the November elections suggested by Sen. Brad Ashford would hardly be worth the trouble. It would take place only weeks before the regular session is slated to begin.
It’s possible that some light might be shed by the investigation being conducted by the Omaha law firm hired by the Corrections Department, but, since the firm is taking its direction from the department, there might also be questions on the thoroughness of the probe. The same questions would be raised if Attorney General Jon Bruning hired an outside special counsel, as suggested by gubernatorial candidate Chuck Hassebrook.
Despite initial declarations that he would hold people accountable, Gov. Dave Heineman hasn’t done much publicly to provide answers.
So give a green light to Lathrop’s special legislative committee to dig into the way the department handles its duties. Lathrop says the committee, which is charged with looking into the department’s handling of the Nikko Jenkins case, already has the authority it needs. Let the committee get to work.