Prisons employees fired, suspended over sentencing screw-up

Deena Winter
|
Aug 15, 2014 5:47 PM
Prisons employees fired, suspended over sentencing screw-up

By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog

LINCOLN, Neb. – All three lawyers who worked for the state corrections department were disciplined this week — with two choosing to retire rather than go through the termination process — and a fourth employees was suspended as the fallout continues after a massive prison sentencing screw-up.

.

FALLOUT: Corrections director Mike Kenney and Gov. Dave Heineman say they’ve taken disciplinary action in the wake of a massive prison sentencing screw-up.

The prisons sytem’s general legal counsel, George Green, and associate legal counsel, Sharon Lindgren, retired immediately rather than be fired, the governor announced in a press conference today. Both had worked for the state about 25 years.

Two more prisons workers, associate legal counsel Kathy Blum and Records Administrator Kyle Poppert, were also disciplined. Blum was suspended one day without pay and Poppert was suspended for two weeks without pay.

“Their actions were inappropriate, inexcusable and irresponsible,” Gov. Dave Heineman said.

The disciplinary actions came on the heels of an independent investigation of the prison sentencing scandal by the Jackson Lewis law firm. The state highway patrol is also investigating past and present state employees over why they miscalculated sentences, shaving years off sentences of dangerous criminals and contradicting two Supreme Court rulings. The governor said additional actions could be taken, if the facts warrant them.

Prisons Director Michael Kenney said he believes the disciplinary actions line up with the level of culpability of each staffer, based on the Jackson Lewis investigation.

“It was more than an act of deliberation, it was an act of negligence,” Kenney said. “It wasn’t an action someone took, it was the actions people failed to take.”

Heineman said Green and Lindgren were “most responsible.”

“George Green knew about it,” he said of the sentencing miscalculations.

Heineman said Green and Lindgren will not get severance pay, but just vacation pay, one-fourth of their sick pay and retirement benefits.

The mistakes revolve around how “good time” is applied to the sentences of prisoners with mandatory minimum sentences. State law doesn’t allow good time credit to be applied to the maximum portion of a sentence before the mandatory minimum sentence is served, but that’s how prison sentences have been calculated since 1995, until the Omaha World-Herald exposed the error in June. Since then, the state has said 306 inmates were released early and 15 ex-prisoners were hauled back to prison to complete their sentences.

Two boxes of public documents released by the corrections department Friday in response to a records request by Nebraska Watchdog and other media outlets indicate there was often confusion about how to calculate the sentences, with befuddled prison employees checking and double-checking each other’s math. Occasionally, they were asked by prosecutors, judges and attorney general staffers why some prisoners’ release dates were earlier than their parole eligibility dates. They simply explained their admittedly complicated way of calculating sentences, and were rarely questioned.

“It’s clear there was some confusion,” Heineman said.

Kenney acknowledged the complexity of calculating sentences — saying “it’s not as easy as sometimes portrayed” – but said confusion didn’t cause the problem.

“It was negligence,” he said.

After the state Supreme Court clarified last year that cases with mandatory minimums can’t be docked by good time, Assistant Attorney General Linda Willard sent the opinion to corrections’ records manager Jeannene Douglass and her boss, records administrator Poppert. Douglass responded in an email to Willard, Green and Poppert basically saying she and Willard agreed they should keep calculating sentences the way they had been (incorrectly), noting that inmates wouldn’t complain because they’d serve less time and that it would be a “real mess” to have to recalculate a bunch of sentences.

Willard retired from her job in May; Douglass retired last year.

Kenney said the issue should have been taken to the warden at the time, Bob Houston, who recently testified to lawmakers that he was never notified.

Emails released by the corrections department show law clerks from the attorney general’s office and appeals courts inquired about how mandatory minimum sentences were being calculated, with few questions asked.

As for whether any employees in the attorney general’s office should be disciplined, Heineman said Attorney General Jon Bruning is responsible for taking disciplinary actions in his office.

Editor’s note: to subscribe to News Updates from Nebraska Watchdog at no cost, click here.