Facts and Policy Reforms for Nebraska
Like most states, Nebraska’s prison population has exploded in recent decades.
Between 1980 and 2015, the prison population grew nearly fourfold. As of 2018, all but one of the state’s facilities are exceeding capacity. In Nebraska, nearly one in ten children will have a parent in jail or prison at some point in their childhood.
Drug-related charges, assault, public order charges, drunk driving, and theft are the top five charges driving people into prisons. In spite of recent Justice Reinvestment reforms, prison admissions for people convicted of the least serious category of felony (Class IV) were 83 percent higher than expected in 2017. The number of people who returned to prison after their parole was revoked increased by 29 percent between 2015 and 2017. Between 2007 and 2017, the Nebraska Unicameral passed into law 38 bills that either increased penalties for existing crimes or created new offenses. Over roughly the same time period, the prison population grew by 1,000 people.
Unsurprisingly, Nebraska’s mass incarceration crisis has had an enormous impact on people of color, especially Black people. One in 22 adult Black men is imprisoned in Nebraska, and while Black people make up less than 5 percent of the state’s adult population, they constitute 27.7 percent of the state’s prison population. Native American Nebraskans are imprisoned at a rate that is seven times higher than that of white Nebraskans. Ending mass incarceration is a critical — although insufficient — step towards addressing racial disparities in Nebraska’s criminal justice system as well as its broader society.
Women are also being sent to prison in Nebraska at alarming rates. As of 2017, Nebraska’s sole women’s prison was operating at 125.45 percent of design capacity. The majority of women serving time in the state are imprisoned for nonviolent charges. In 2014, nearly half of the female prison population was convicted of theft or drug-related charges.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Nebraska can dramatically reduce its prison population by implementing just a few sensible reforms:
- Broadening existing pretrial diversion programs to keep people out of prison.
- Ceasing to introduce laws that create new chargeable offenses, particularly those that overlap with or duplicate existing charges.
- Continuing bond reform efforts to prevent the unnecessary detention of people who pose no risk to public safety, but are unable to make bond.
- Expanding “ban-the-box” legislation (LB 420 2017) to remove barriers to employment, as well as expanding occupational license reform (LB 299 2018) for Nebraskans with criminal histories.
- Correcting the overreach of mandatory minimum sentencing laws.
- Ceasing to introduce or endorse legislation that enhances penalties for existing crimes.
If Nebraska were to follow these and other reforms outlined in this Smart Justice 50-State Blueprint, 3,032 fewer people would be in prison in Nebraska by 2025, saving the state $139,489,625 that could be invested in schools, services, and other resources that would strengthen communities.
For more information, along with detailed breakdowns of Nebraska’s prison population and the reforms needed to reduce it, click here.