Prison employees ignored red flags showing they were miscalculating sentences

Deena Winter
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Aug 16, 2014 3:27 AM
Prison employees ignored red flags showing they were miscalculating sentences

By Deena Winter | Nebraska Watchdog

LINCOLN, Neb. – Eleven days after being informed by an assistant attorney general that a state Supreme Court ruling indicated prison officials were incorrectly calculating some prison sentences, the man in charge of records sought to explain the inconsistency.

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LOCKED UP: Public documents released Friday show state corrections officials ignored many red flags and continued incorrectly calculating prison sentences for years.

Kyle Poppert, records administrator, sent an email asking two employees to come up with an explanation for their chief legal counsel as to why the corrections department felt it should continue its 18-year-old method of calculating certain sentences.

“I think the court is misinterpreting the previous cases,” he wrote. “Anyway, we need to be able to explain this to George (Green). I do want to caution, folks, our current efforts to reduce our inmate population has nothing to do with how we apply good time laws. The law is the law and we will act accordingly.”

Less than two hours later, the records manager who had pushed to keep calculating prison sentences the way they had for years, Jeannene Douglass, forwarded his email to another employee, saying, “Thought you might get a kick out of this email from KP. Specially the last sentence!!!”

Clearly Douglass had a different impression of how the department viewed the law. This week Poppert was among four state prison employees who were disciplined in connection with a massive sentencing screw-up that incorrectly shortened the sentences of hundreds of criminals. Douglass retired last year.

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 had been calculated since 1995. This routinely led to prisoners “jamming out,” or being discharged, before being paroled.

Eight months after Poppert asked his employees to justify their methods, high-level corrections employees were still debating whether and how to respond to the Supreme Court ruling. According to documents released by the state corrections department pursuant to an open records request by Nebraska Watchdog and other media outlets, during an Oct. 31 meeting, Poppert and the department’s three legal eagles – Green, Sharon Lindgren and Kathy Blum — talked about the ruling.

According to minutes of the meeting, the corrections officials decided to clarify what the Supreme Court’s intention was before acting.

“We have been performing calculations our current way for years,” the minutes said. “We are now aware of this situation, we will act when we are specifically told our current way is wrong and it needs to be changed.”

And so sentences continued to be incorrectly calculated until June, when the Omaha World-Herald reported on the problem. This week Green, Lindgren, Blum and Poppert were disciplined for their role in the scandal, with Green and Lindgren retiring rather than facing termination proceedings.

Internal emails show corrections employees ignored many red flags – not the least of which were two Supreme Court rulings clarifying the proper calculations – as prosecutors, a judge, employees and law clerks questioned how some prisoners were being released before being paroled. Always, prison officials explained their method of calculating sentences, and few people pressed the issue.

Even an inmate inadvertently raised a red flag by telling his mother on a phone call he was getting out three years earlier than he should.

“I don’t know if he is right or not but you might want to look into it,” a prison employee wrote.

A records manager said his sentence was correct.

But it’s clear from internal emails that calculating sentences for prisoners with mandatory minimums was confusing to many employees. Douglass routinely described herself as confused, befuddled and crazy while checking calculations. Emails indicate the computer system calculations didn’t always match employees’ math, and often they had to go in and change sentences, sometimes after triple-checking each other’s math.

“I, too, get really confused with these mandatory minimum sentence calculations,” Douglass wrote in 2010. “It really causes me to step back, take a really deep breath, and then start to think it out.”

And this was the employee that Poppert called “the expert in the field” in an email.

In 2007, former records administrator Ron Riethmuller wrote a memo to Green saying several district judges had questioned the way corrections calculated discharge dates for mandatory minimum cases. He noted a 2002 Supreme Court ruling concluding good time couldn’t be applied to mandatory minimums, and questioned whether the department should change its practice.

“The department hasn’t been challenged on our current method because it benefits the inmate,” he wrote. “If we adopt the same procedure we use for calculating parole eligibility dates, the inmates will serve additional time.”

Another red flag went up in 2012, when data analyst Beth Boal questioned why inmates were being released before paroled, sending Poppert a list of 61 inmates in that boat, some of them with release dates five to eight years earlier than their parole dates.

Poppert calmly explained their (faulty) system, and that was that.

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