Published Friday, September 20, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 4:30 pm
director retiring
World-Herald editorial: Challenges await next prison chief

In the wake of its director’s sudden retirement, Nebraska’s prison system needs the leadership and reassurance of a calm, capable hand.

A number of issues have surfaced that impact the safety and tax dollars of Nebraskans, and the new prison boss will be an integral part of finding solutions.

The Nebraska Department of Correctional Services is taking understandable heat for how it handled a handful of prisoners on work release, including at least one whose actions while outside prison harmed the public. It is being questioned fairly for decisions that contributed to the release of violent inmate and now-accused killer Nikko Jenkins.

Prison officials are part of the statewide debate on Nebraska’s “good-time” law and its design flaws — about whether good time should be earned (it should) instead of given automatically, or, at the least, whether the process to take good time away should be improved to make it easier to tie an inmate’s poor conduct to serious, certain consequences.

Nebraska’s prisons add more inmates than leave each month, but staffing hasn’t kept pace. Crowding has reached a level that some fear could trigger federal lawsuits. But the public has shown little appetite for building expensive new prisons.

Plus, the 2014 legislative session will bring a push for additional changes involving more alternatives for nonviolent offenders, a revamping of “good time” policies, sentencing tweaks and more mental health and substance abuse treatment for criminals.

Given all of this, prisons director Bob Houston’s decision to retire couldn’t have come at a more difficult time. So it is important for Gov. Dave Heineman to seek someone of his caliber quickly to take the reins. Too much business is unfinished.

Houston won praise from a wide range of observers (law enforcement, prisoner advocates, state lawmakers) for his work in this difficult business for nearly four decades.

Such support is rare and valuable for a department that, at its best, cuts long-term costs to taxpayers by preparing some inmates for lives after crime and punishing those who refuse to change ways.

As state senators have said, it’s appropriate to note the current problems as well as look at Houston’s accomplishments on particular issues.

Houston did the best he could with a system that continued to add inmates despite an earnest effort to emphasize community corrections. He correctly prioritized work-release programs and took responsibility for the unavoidable risks involved, even if some regulations could use tightening.

He did what he could to address crowding, including the recent start to the long-term planning process that examines the prison system’s building needs, a process that often ends with proposals for a new prison or for expanding older ones.

Examination of prison policies is warranted for how Jenkins’ good time was handled and whether he should have been committed to a mental health institution after his sentence instead of being released.

During the next legislative session, with lawmakers working on prison and sentencing reform, help could be on the way.

Nebraskans want a prison system that reflects the state’s values of punishment for crimes committed, hard work, earned rewards and a chance at a law-abiding life upon completion of a sentence.

Now, at a tumultuous moment for the prison system, the state needs a corrections director equal to the task.

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