The following editorial first appeared in the Lincoln Journal Star
When it comes to describing the enormity of the mistaken early release of scores of Nebraska prison inmates, many of the applicable adjectives have already been used, aptly, by people with expertise.
“This is a stunner,” Omaha Police Sgt. John Wells told the Omaha World-Herald, which uncovered the mistakes. “What the hell is the state doing?”
“Unbelievable,” said Douglas County District Judge Peter Bataillon.
“It’s befuddling how a colossal mistake of this nature could occur,” said defense attorney Clarence Mock.
The mistakes cut months and years from the sentences given the worst criminals – murderers, rapists, child molesters and the like. For example, in one case a man convicted of killing a 35-year-old Lincoln mother in 2000 was scheduled to be let out in 2016, five years too early.
According to the mistaken calculations done by the Department of Correctional Services, some violent criminals were set to be released from prison before they were even eligible for parole.
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The mistakes by corrections officials were made despite rulings issued in 2002 and 2013 by the Nebraska Supreme Court that spelled out how release dates should be calculated in cases involving crimes that called for mandatory prison terms.
On Wednesday, Gov. Dave Heineman promised to hold accountable those responsible for making the errors.
State officials are trying to determine what legal steps are necessary to round up the convicts who got out early. Corrections officials are recalculating the release dates of inmates still in prison.
The Corrections Department already was in the spotlight for several other incidents.
The department released Nikko Jenkins without seeking a civil commitment to a mental institution on the grounds that he was a danger to himself and others – despite Jenkins’ repeated promises in prison that he would commit violent acts when he got out.
Within days of his release, he did just that. Jenkins went on a killing spree, murdering four people before he was locked up again. He is awaiting sentencing for the killings.
The department also allowed Jeremy Dobbe. a man with several driving-related convictions, to hold a prison job requiring him to pick up work-release inmates from their jobs late at night. Last June, Dobbe slammed a state-owned prison van into a minivan driven by 47-year-old Lincoln nurse Joyce Meeks, killing her. He was sentenced this week to an additional 18 to 20 years in prison.
State senators already have increased their scrutiny of the troubled department. The latest revelations indicate they might have to deepen their involvement.
When it comes to protecting public safety, the Corrections Department too often has been a weak link in the system. The governor and Legislature need to work together to restore operational competency before more potentially fatal mistakes are made.