Governor’s prisons appointee in limbo amid questions

Deena Winter
|
Mar 21, 2014 9:25 AM
Governor’s prisons appointee in limbo amid questions

By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog

LINCOLN, Neb. – The governor’s choice to head up Nebraska’s prisons may face a rocky road to confirmation by lawmakers.

The Judiciary Committee has yet to act on his confirmation amid concerns about his willingness to reform the prison system.

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Michael Kenney

Gov. Dave Heineman appointed Michael Kenney as his corrections director in September, and the Judiciary Committee held his confirmation hearing March 11, but has not voted on his confirmation.

Lincoln Sen. Colby Coash, who sits on the Judiciary Committee, said he has suggested the committee wait to make sure the chairman’s prison reform bill is “going down the track to general file” before confirming Kenney.

The bill is “really important to the committee,” Coash said, and if a bunch of strange amendments from outside the Legislature crop up on the floor, that could hold up Kenney’s confirmation.

“It would affect that confirmation hearing, I believe,” Coash said. “My goal is to get (LB)907 marching down the track and then let’s get director Kenney (confirmed).”

Prior to being tapped by the governor to replace retiring director Bob Houston, Kenney served as warden of the Omaha Correctional Center since 2010. He has 36 years of experience in corrections, serving as warden of the Nebraska State Penitentiary from 1999 to 2006.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Brad Ashford said he’s not holding up Kenney’s confirmation and that it will be discussed next week. But he said the committee questions whether Kenney will be independent, tell the governor when he’s wrong and make prison reforms.

“The question is, is he the right person to be the director at a time of reform?” Ashford said. “That is the issue.”

The state’s prisons are operating at about 158 percent of capacity and the Judiciary Committee wants to enact reforms after a prisoner, Nicco Jenkins, allegedly killed four Omahans within weeks of being released from prison, despite having warned prison officials he would kill people. The governor, by contrast, has largely focused on reforming the good-time law while awaiting a long-term study.

Ashford’s bill does not make changes to the state’s good-time law for prisoners. The law basically cuts prisoners’ sentences in half by cutting a day off their sentence for every day served, as long as they don’t break prison rules. Heineman supports a bill that would require prisoners to earn good time rather than get it automatically. Ashford disagrees, saying good time is a tool most corrections systems use to ease overcrowding, adding the governor is looking for a quick fix.

Ashford sponsored a bill, LB907, that aims to ease prisoners back into society with $5 million for prisoner job training, $3.8 million to expand a substance abuse program for drug offenders and $5 million for services for mentally ill prisoners.

“Are we going to move forward with the reforms that are necessary to reduce the prison population in a real way, not just cosmetically?” Ashford said. “That’s my concern.”

Ashford said he likes Kenney personally and thinks he has the credentials to do the job, but he’s not yet convinced Kenney will deal with issues such as overcrowding.

“That doesn’t mean that we’re not going to take it up and that he’s not going to be confirmed,” he said. “Are they really ready to accept the fact that mistakes have been made?”

Coash said Kenney will face tough sledding both in the committee and on the floor, noting the filibuster king, Sen. Ernie Chambers, doesn’t think Kenney should be confirmed.

“I think he’s competent; I think he’s qualified,” Coash said of Kenney.

LB907 has advanced to general file and should be taken up by lawmakers next week, Coash said.

Contact Deena Winter at deena@nebraskawatchdog.org.

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