The following editorial first appeared in the Lincoln Journal Star.
Recent comments on Nebraska’s good time law have muddied discussion on the problems that ail Nebraska’s correctional system.
Changing Nebraska’s good time law would not have saved the four victims of Nikko Jenkins or avoided the debacle in the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services.
In fact, paying any attention to statements about the good time law from Rep. Lee Terry, Gov. Dave Heineman and J.L. Spray, state chairman of the Republican Party, would divert the focus from where it should be.
Officials in the Corrections Department had options for keeping Jenkins in prison longer than they did. They could have taken away more good time under current state law. They could have sought a civil commitment to keep Jenkins in custody.
Particularly scurrilous is the call from Spray for Sen. Steve Lathrop to resign.
Spray’s call is tantamount to trying to put a spike in the committee’s work, which has shined a devastating bright light on mismanagement in the Corrections Department.
Lathrop is not the one playing partisan politics on the issue. It’s Spray. It’s important to note that when Heineman was subpoenaed Thursday by the committee it was done by a unanimous vote, including Republican Sens. Bob Krist of Omaha, Paul Schumacher of Columbus and Les Seiler of Hastings.
Make no mistake -- mismanagement in the Corrections Department has put the public at risk. From the mistaken early release of prisoners to the cavalier attitude of prison officials to court rulings, the department’s failings have been exposed. Reform is essential.
The revelations continue. Last week Corrections Director Mike Kenney told the committee that he invented a program to allow eight prisoners to serve out their sentences at home -- despite advice from the department’s attorney that the program was illegal.
“I don’t have the luxury of statutory compliance,” Kenney said, according to George Green, then serving as general counsel for the department. Jaws dropped at Kenney’s statement, and they should have.
To be fair, reasonable people can disagree on whether the good time law should be tweaked. Currently good time is granted automatically under state law, and prison officials have authority to take it away for violations in prison. Heineman wants prisoners to earn good time, which is a defensible position.
But to suggest, as Terry did in his desperate campaign to defeat state Sen. Brad Ashford, that Jenkins was “released early because of the good time law that Ashford passionately supported” is absurd.
Jenkins was released early because prison officials did not properly do their job. And, thanks to the work being done by Lathrop and the special investigative committee, taxpayers are continuing to learn more about the mismanagement in the department. Partisans should stop trying to interfere with their work.
The good time law is a side issue. The attention should stay on the way the Corrections Department is being run. That’s what’s really putting the public in danger.