LINCOLN–In many Nebraskan county jails, there simply isn’t enough space for inmates.
While sending inmates to other nearby county jails has helped alleviate some of the overcrowding, some say the overcrowding has influenced sentencing decisions at the judicial level.
Alan Kotschwar, the sheriff of Red Willow County, said he saw judges give more probation sentences before the county’s new, larger jail was built in 2014. Since then, the average daily inmate population went from seven to 17, and deputies no longer have to make as many trips transporting inmates between Red Willow County and counties with spare beds.
“Judges had places to now sentence the inmates to,” Kotschwar said. “They didn’t want us to do a lot of transporting, so they would give more probation at that time.”
It’s no news that the prisons in Nebraska are facing overcrowding issues; the U.S. Department of Justice found that the state had the fourth most overcrowded prison system in the country in 2014. While the state has made efforts to ease populations within the prison systems, some county sheriffs are concerned that overcrowding is simply being shifted to county jails.
Todd Bahensky said he’s seen a similar trend in Hall County, where he serves as the jail’s corrections director. With the prison’s population rising, he’s seen more people sentenced to probation, especially after the passing of Legislative Bill 605 in 2015.
“(The bill) changed the way that those sentences work,” he said. “They have to default to probation in a lot of cases. If you get charged with (a class four felony), the judge has to give you probation unless he has a compelling reason not to. And it was never like that before.”
Bahensky said he’s seen a number of people put on probation who don’t want to check in with probation officers or worrying about violating parole.
“The people getting on probation sometimes aren’t very good candidates for probation,” he said. “They don’t want to be on probation.”
Corey Steel, the state court administrator, said he doesn’t believe judges let the number of available beds in their counties influence their sentencing.
“I would never want to second guess what a judge’s decision is at sentencing,” he said. “I would think that judges would make their sentencing options best based on law and based on the circumstances that are in front of them, not whether there’s capacity in a jail.”
Steel said the rise in parole sentences that followed the passage of LB 605 is a huge benefit for inmates. The supervision and services that go hand-in-hand with probation can help individuals find jobs or housing and provide treatments to aid mental health or end substance abuse.
“The whole goal is if we can get those individuals engaged in those services and continue in those services, they’re going to be productive citizens. They won’t be in that revolving door, coming in and out of jails and prisons,” Steel said. “County jails, they don’t have treatment-based services. That’s not the concept of the jail.”
Another benefit is the cost.
“Somebody on probation, even receiving benefits or services, is much cheaper than placing someone in a jail cell,” Steel said.
Although some inmates do prefer jail time to parole, Steel said most come around to the idea once they see all of the services offered.
And these resources will be offered to more and more people in coming months.
“As any new law, when it takes effect, it’s usually a year or two down the road is where you’re going to start seeing those individuals coming through the system,” Steel said. “We should be seeing a decrease in that prison population … we’ll continue to see a rise in our probation population.”
This story is part two of a three-part series on overcrowding in Nebraska county jails.