The exterior of the Nebraska State Capitol building on Friday, Feb. 7, 2020.
Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike Heavican gave the State of the Judiciary Address on Jan 21. Photo by Camryn Preston, Nebraska News Service.

One bill the Nebraska Legislature is considering this session includes a plan to release some of the oldest inmates behind bars in the state’s prisons.

Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha introduced LB920 on Jan. 10, which includes a measure that would allow for parole for certain inmates over the age of 70. Similar measures are already in place in at least 17 states.

LB920 covers a wide range of potential prison reforms, all of which are based on findings from a study released in January that was conducted by the Nebraska Criminal Justice Reinvestment Working Group in partnership with the Criminal Justice Institute.

Lathrop said the purpose of the bill is to find ways to remedy prison overcrowding and inflated spending without putting the public at risk.

“Ultimately, the goal is to preserve public safety and use taxpayer dollars in a way that we get the best return on our investment,” he said.

According to the study, people age 55 and older made up 10% of Nebraska’s prison population in 2015, which was a 63.5% increase from 2010.

Nationwide, states spend about two to three times more incarcerating older inmates, due to higher rates of significant health problems that drive up health care costs, according to the study.

The Criminal Justice Institute, a national organization that often partners with states, also cites findings that older people are also much less likely to commit crimes than younger individuals, even if they have a criminal background.

At least 17 states across the country have created a geriatric parole option, according to 2018 data from the National Conference of State Legislatures. Geriatric parole is designed to release older inmates who are not deemed a risk to decrease prison populations and lower the health care costs the prison system is responsible for.

Nebraska’s increase in older inmates is taking place alongside a larger trend: Nebraska’s overall prison population is increasing, despite incarceration rates decreasing nationwide.

Between 2011 and 2020, corrections expenditures grew by over 50% and admissions grew 11% between 2015 and 2019, according to the Crime and Justice Institute study.

The state declared a prison overcrowding emergency in July of 2020, with six out of 10 state prison facilities operating above 120% capacity.

LB920 would allow for inmates over the age of 70 who are not serving a sentence for a Class 1 or 1A felony or a life sentence to be eligible for geriatric parole.

To be eligible, inmates would have to have served at least 10 years of their sentence and go through the standard parole hearing process in front of the Board of Parole, which would determine if each inmate is fit for release. If granted, the geriatric parole would last the remainder of the parolee’s sentence with any reductions for good conduct.

While the prison overcrowding issue Nebraska is facing has prompted calls to build a new maximum security state facility, that wouldn’t fully fix the problem, said Spike Eickholt, government liaison for the ACLU of Nebraska.

“We cannot build our way out of this problem,” Eickholt said. “We have more people who are staying in prison longer, we have an aging prison population that we continue to house, and unless we do something to somehow stop the flow of people going in or at least slow it down to a slower rate, or do something to get the people who are in prison out … we’re just going to be building one and two and three prisons for the next four or five years for the foreseeable future.”

Lathrop said he and many of his colleagues, after reviewing the data, have come to a similar conclusion.

“If you don’t make reforms and changes like LB920 contemplates, you’re going to have to build 200 prison beds every year just to keep up with growth,” he said.

While many of LB920’s recommendations received consensus from the Nebraska Criminal Justice Reinvestment Working Group and have garnered broad support, geriatric parole was one of the considerations that was not unanimously supported.

Gov. Pete Ricketts, one of the working group’s co-chairs, said he does not support the four considerations that did not have consensus among the group, including the provision for geriatric parole, saying they aren’t right for Nebraska.

Lathrop said the overall idea of geriatric parole isn’t the issue, it’s disagreement in what age it would start at and what amount of time served would be required.

“I think that’s an example of a proposal that we may be able to develop consensus on, assuming we have the right parameters,” he said.

Eickholt said he thinks that too often, people have the attitude of locking people up and throwing away the key, which leads to overcrowding and growing corrections costs.

“You’ve turned your prisons into basically old folk retirement homes at that point,” he said. “And that’s not the point of the prison system.”

Hi, my name is Luna Stephens and I am a senior journalism and advertising and public relations major at UNL. I am also currently an intern at the Omaha World-Herald and previous to that, at the Lincoln Journal Star.