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Neb. lawmakers create new prison oversight committee

The seven-member panel will examine problems in the corrections department but will also look at other services, such as parole and probation

By Grant Schulte 
Associated Press

LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska's prison system will continue to face legislative scrutiny after lawmakers voted Thursday to create a new committee to oversee the troubled agency.

The seven-member panel will examine problems in the corrections department but will also look at other services, such as parole and probation. Lawmakers voted 28-11 to form the group.

Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha said he introduced the proposal because of ongoing problems in the corrections department, including recent inmate deaths. One inmate was charged with first-degree murder last month for the death of his cellmate at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution in southeast Nebraska. The prison has been the site of two deadly riots in two years.

The committee also would look at programs and policies that could benefit prisoners, building on the work of previous legislative committees that focused on overcrowding, staffing levels and the miscalculation of hundreds of inmate sentences.

Sen. Dan Watermeier of Syracuse, the chairman of the Executive Board, said the department has shown improvement but argued that senators should continue to monitor it.

Watermeier said he didn't want to overload the department, which has faced a barrage of requests for information. Department Director Scott Frakes testified Tuesday that responding to another legislative committee would add to his staff's workload and make it harder to enact that changes lawmakers have already approved.

"I hope the executive branch appreciates what we're trying to do here," Watermeier said.

Opponents said they the department already has sufficient oversight and criticized a previous committee's decision to hire former state Sen. Steve Lathrop as its attorney. Lathrop, who developed an expertise in prisons, was known for his intense questioning of prison administrators.

Lawmakers have passed a series of prison reforms over the last few years that are designed to reduce the prison population by increasing treatment services and supervision for parolees.

Prison administrators "are doing what we've asked them to do," said Sen. Tyson Larson of O'Neill. "Sometimes it takes time to continue on that path. I have faith in Director Frakes."

Sen. Laura Ebke of Crete, the chairwoman of the Judiciary Committee, is expected to lead the committee.

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