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.

Firefighters battle brush fire near Fontenelle Forest
Omaha police investigate two shootings
Sioux City riverboat casino prepares to close, still hoping to be saved
Omaha high schoolers to help canvass for Heartland 2050
Mizzou alumni aim to attract veterinary students to Henry Doorly Zoo
Grant ensures that Sioux City can start building children's museum
Party looks to 'nudge' women into public office in Iowa
For birthday, Brownell-Talbot student opts to give, not get
Sole big donor to Beau McCoy says he expects nothing in return
Two taken to hospital after fire at Benson home
Grace: Pipe organ concert a tribute to couple's enduring love
Omaha-area jails and ERs new front line in battling mental illness
Convicted killer Nikko Jenkins might await his sentence in prison
Kelly: 70 years after a deadly D-Day rehearsal, Omahan, WWII vet will return to Europe
Civil rights hearing to consider voting policies in Midwest
17 senators in Nebraska Legislature hit their (term) limits
It's a pursuit of pastel at Spring Lake Park's Easter egg hunt
Financial picture improving for city-owned Mid-America Center
No injuries after fire at midtown's old Mercer Mansion
29-year-old Omahan arrested for 22nd time in Lincoln
Police: Slaying of woman in Ralston apartment likely over drugs
Explosion near 29th, Woolworth damages vehicles
Omaha police arrest man, 19, accused in March shooting
Earth gets its day in the sun at Elmwood Park
Beau McCoy strikes Obama doll in TV ad; Democrats are not happy
< >
COLUMNISTS »
Kelly: 70 years after a deadly D-Day rehearsal, Omahan, WWII vet will return to Europe
A World War II veteran from Omaha will return this week to Europe to commemorate a tragedy in the run-up to D-Day.
Dickson’s Week in Review, April 13-19
On Twitter some guy tweeted that the spring game isn’t taken as seriously as a regular-season contest. What was your first clue? When the head coach entered waving a cat aloft?
Kelly: A California university president returns to her Nebraska roots on Ivy Day
The main speaker at today's Ivy Day celebration at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is a college president who grew up roping calves and earned her Ph.D. at the prestigious Oxford University in England.
Breaking Brad: Stuck in a claw machine? You get no Easter candy
I know of one kid in Lincoln who will be receiving a lump of coal from the Easter Bunny, just as soon as he's extricated from that bowling alley claw machine.
Breaking Brad: Mountain lion season's over, but the bunny's fair game!
Thursday was the last day of a Nebraska Legislature session. Before leaving town, legislators passed a bill to hold a lottery to hunt the Easter Bunny.
Deadline Deal thumbnail
The Jaipur in Rockbrook Village
Half Off Fine Indian Cuisine & Drinks! $15 for Dinner, or $7 for Lunch
Buy Now
PHOTO GALLERIES »
< >
SPOTLIGHT »
Omaha World-Herald Contests
Enter for a chance to win great prizes.
OWH Store: Buy photos, books and articles
Buy photos, books and articles
Travel Snaps Photo
Going on Vacation? Take the Omaha World-Herald with you and you could the next Travel Snaps winner.
Click here to donate to Goodfellows
The 2011 Goodfellows fund drive provided holiday meals to nearly 5,000 families and their children, and raised more than $500,000 to help families in crisis year round.
WORLD-HERALD ALERTS »
Want to get World-Herald stories sent directly to your home or work computer? Sign up for Omaha.com's News Alerts and you will receive e-mails with the day's top stories.
Can't find what you need? Click here for site map »