Heineman wants tougher "good time" for prisoners; blasts ombudsman for citing lack of prison programs

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January 13, 2014 - 5:10pm

Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman on Monday said he would try to make it tougher for violent prisoners to get out of jail. He blasted the author of a report that said there aren’t enough programs to help rehabilitate inmates. And he set off what promises to be a tough battle with Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers, who favors keeping the law the way it is.
The governor made his announcement at a news conference flanked by Attorney General Jon Bruning, who supports the plan, and Omaha Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh, who will introduce the bill in the Legislature. Heineman called for changing the state’s so called good-time law.
“It’s time to eliminate automatic good time credit for the most violent inmates. The public safety of our citizens should be priority number one. And that should start with violent criminals being required to earn any reduction in their sentence, rather than automatically receiving it,” Heineman said.
Currently, an inmate entering the state’s prisons is automatically credited with “good time” equal to half his sentence. If he behaves, he can get out in half the time; if he does not, prison officials can take away his good time. Heineman wants to reverse that presumption, and have the inmate serve his full sentence unless he behaves and follows his personalized program plan.
That raises the question of whether or not there are enough programs for inmates. In a recent report, State Ombudsman Marshall Lux wrote that only 13 percent of Nebraska prisoners were participating in programs, which focus on topics such as anger management, violence reduction, substance abuse and sex offenses.  The report also said no programming was available to inmates in solitary confinement like Nikko Jenkins, accused of killing four people in Omaha following his release last August.
Asked about the Ombudsman’s report, Heineman reacted sharply.  “Marshall Lux can try and blame someone else for these murders. But Nikko Jenkins is the person who killed four Nebraskans," Heineman said.  "Marshall Lux may want to be soft on crime and care more about the criminals than the victims and their families, but I don’t.
“I’m calling on Marshall Lux to join me and Attorney General Bruning and me in reforming Nebraska’s good time laws, so that the Nikko Jenkins of the world will not have their sentence cut in half the moment they enter Nebraska’s prison system because of the way Nebraska’s current good time law works,” Heineman added.
In his report, Lux wrote, “Clearly, nothing that happened to Mr. Jenkins while he was incarcerated could possibly justify, excuse, or explain the brutal murder of four innocent human beings.” Rather, he wrote, his purpose was to report on how the Department of Correctional Services mental and behavioral health system managed Jenkins' care and handling.
Following Heineman’s comments, Lux declined to be drawn into the debate about good time.
“Questions about what our laws say on the subject of good time and on sentences in general are fundamental policy issues for the state. Those are things that have to be decided by people who are much higher than my pay grade. That’s what we have a Legislature for. That’s what we have a governor for,” Lux said. “I respect the governor and I respect his opinion on issues. But the whole issue of good time and sentencing laws are not the business of an ombudsman.”
One person who will be involved in debating those policies, and whether or not they should be changed, is Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers. Asked about Heineman’s proposal to require inmates to earn good time, Chambers left no doubt where he stands.
“I will oppose it, because generally there’s something to have to do to quote, ‘earn it,’” Chamber said. “If you attend certain classes, take certain programming, then you get what in the old days was called ‘meritorious good time.’ There never are enough opportunities along that line for all of the inmates. So it creates an opportunity for arbitrariness and discrimination. And I think the system as existing now ought to remain the way it is.”

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