By GRANT SCHULTE
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Nebraska’s corrections department is reviewing 2,000 prisoner sentences for accuracy after discovering that some inmates received credit they shouldn’t have, director Scott Frakes announced Wednesday.
The review could add as much as four months onto an inmate’s sentence, which could exacerbate prison crowding, but Frakes said he didn’t know how many would be affected. In a small number of cases, some inmates may not have received all the credit they deserve.
The announcement comes nearly a year after corrections officials announced that they released hundreds of prisoners too early because of miscalculated sentences. The Department of Correctional Services has faced a litany of problems ever since, from staff complaints about excessive workloads to a prison riot last month that left two inmates dead.
Frakes - who was appointed by Gov. Pete Ricketts in January - praised his staff for bringing the latest problem to his attention. During his confirmation hearing in February, the new director said he had sensed a “fear-based culture” among employees when it came to questioning how the department operated.
“This is for me one of the first strong examples of how we’re beginning to change the culture,” Frakes said. “... If people are afraid to bring problems forward, then I’m going to end up in the same situation that has haunted this department for the last couple of years.”
The department was heavily criticized after former high-level employees acknowledged that they ignored a Supreme Court ruling which outlined the correct way to calculate sentences.
Frakes said the newest problem wasn’t caused by bad legal advice, but by staffers who believed they were calculating sentences properly based on their understanding of state law. Frakes said he didn’t know why employees didn’t seek legal advice to clarify questions that arose among department staff.
The problem was discovered earlier this month, while officials were replacing a 30-year-old computer system and automating the process for calculating inmate sentences. The system was so outdated that corrections employees often had to make manual changes to account for “good time” credit and other factors that affect how long inmates spend behind bars.
Frakes said the old system may have resulted in prison sentences that don’t comply with the requirements in state law.
Frakes’ promise to fix the problem drew praise from a member of the Legislature’s corrections oversight committee, which investigated the department and held a series of scathing public hearings last year.
Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha said Frakes recently notified him and other committee members that new problems could surface during the overhaul.
Krist said he still has confidence in the new department director. The committee will continue its oversight, he said, but department officials also need time to correct past mistakes.
“There’s a point where you don’t want to interfere with progress, and you certainly don’t want to get in their way,” Krist said.
At issue is a 2011 law that allows “enhanced good time” credit for offenders. The enhanced credit allows inmates to earn three days’ worth of credit per month on their sentences if their records are clear of recent misconduct.
Frakes said that, until recently, the system allowed the enhanced credits without considering whether an inmate had spent 12 months incarcerated, as state law requires.
The system also did not check to see whether inmates were serving a mandatory minimum sentence before awarding the credit. Inmates serving the mandatory minimum portion of their sentences are not supposed to be eligible.
Third, the system may have allowed some inmates to qualify for credits despite recent misconduct that should have disqualified them.
Frakes said the review should be completed by the end of July.