Prison construction plan questioned; deadlock over guns continues


January 27th, 2016

Appropriations Committee members adjourn after discussing prisons. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Appropriations Committee members adjourn after discussing prisons. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Nebraska lawmakers are questioning Gov. Pete Ricketts’ plans for prison construction, and are continuing to wrestle with whether state law or local ordinances should regulate guns in the state.

In his State of the State speech earlier this month, Gov. Pete Ricketts endorsed Corrections Director Scott Frakes’ proposal to spend $26 million to expand the Lincoln Community Correctional Center (LCCC).

That’s a facility where inmates on work release spend the night, while working during the day.

Frakes’ plan calls for expanding the existing capacity by 148 beds. But Ombudsman Marshall Lux is questioning whether that’s the best use of tax dollars.

“When you do the math, what you find out is that we’re gaining 148 beds at about $175,000 per bed, which sounds pretty steep to me,” Lux said.

Lux says it would cost a maximum of about $18 million to renovate a former Lancaster County work release facility in Lincoln’s Air Park section that could hold 200 inmates.

“That comes out to about $90,000 per bed gained, so it’s substantially less than the amount that is being discussed for the construction project (at LCCC)” he said.

One difference is the state owns the LCCC, which would be expanded, whereas it would have to lease the Air Park facility from the Lincoln Airport Authority. But Lux said he thinks the state could get good lease terms if it agreed to renovate the facility.

Longer term, Lux says if the state does want to expand an existing facility, it makes more sense to do so in Omaha, where more prisoners come from, than in Lincoln. Referring to the existing community corrections capacities in both cities, he said, “Obviously Lincoln is a smaller city than Omaha. If you have 200 beds in Lincoln and 90 beds in Omaha, it sounds to me like it’s upside down.”

The Legislature’s special prison oversight committee voted to ask Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha to brief the Appropriations Committee, which would have to approve the construction money, on senators’ concerns. Krist said those concerns include that the Ricketts administration is not following either of the two most recent prison master plans the state paid for, and has not detailed how the $26 million would be spent.

But Sen. John Kuehn of Heartwell, a member of the Appropriations Committee, said times have changed since those plans were formulated during the administration of former Gov. Dave Heineman.

“I think we need to be careful about looking at the master plan as an absolute template moving forward, given that it was introduced in 2014 and we’re in 2016 with a new director, a new administration, and a lot of new information,” Kuehn said.

But Krist said senators and the administration should take Lux’s views seriously.

“I think we have an ombudsman who has been connected to the corrections system for over 30 years; has watched all the widgets, gadgets, administrations come and go, and he has a constructive criticism of what needs to go forward that includes putting the right number of beds in the right geographic areas in the state,” Krist said. “I believe we have some alternatives…We’re not going to tell the executive branch how to move forward. But we’re not going to appropriate money for something that we don’t think is sound in terms of investment.”

Asked for reaction to Lux’s questions about the construction plan, Frakes released a statement that read “I have considered the various options that will move us in the right direction to address our capacity and infrastructure needs. I am confident the expansion of community custody beds in Lincoln is the best first step.”

And Omaha Sen. Heath Mello said whatever plan is ultimately adopted, it must come soon to deal with a prison system that holds 60 percent more inmates than it was designed to.

“I’m convinced that we have to get something done this year, is what I’m convinced,” Mello said. “What we end up deciding to do I think is going to be determined in regards to more information, more discussion and dialogue with the Department of Corrections and the executive branch.”

Meanwhile, in legislative debate Tuesday, senators continued to deadlock over a bill that would preempt local gun regulations in favor of a uniform state law.

Supporters say the measure is needed to ensure people traveling with guns from place to place in the state don’t run afoul of a patchwork of local laws. But Mello said looser state laws could have absurd results in north Omaha, which has a serious gun violence problem.

“You could see someone – a gang member, perhaps – carrying a semiautomatic rifle, walking down the street in the highest crime area of the state, and there’s nothing anyone could do about it, because we would have gotten rid of Omaha’s gun ordinances,” he said.

On the other hand, Sen. Tommy Garrett of Bellevue argued Omaha’s restrictions endanger the ability of people like Pliego Gonzalez, a legal immigrant, to protect his family with a gun.

“Mr. Gonzalez legally purchased the firearm after his family was victimized in a home invasion robbery. The City of Omaha refused to allow him to register (it) because he was a permanent resident alien and not yet a citizen. This refusal effectively made it unlawful for him to keep his legally-acquired handgun in the city of Omaha,” Garrett said. “Pliego had to go through costly litigation to get back his legally purchased weapon — a weapon he purchased to protect a family he loves, a family he does not want to see victimized again.”

The Legislature adjourned for the day without reaching a vote on the bill. Senators were still discussing a possible compromise Tuesday. Votes are expected Wednesday that will determine if the bill advances to the next stage of debate or dies for this year.

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