The Legislature’s special oversight committee on Nebraska’s justice system recommended Monday that the state begin to plan for the possibility of a prison overcrowding emergency that could trigger the parole of a large number of inmates.

The statutory definition of overcrowding in Nebraska is a prison population exceeding 140 percent of capacity on or after July 1, 2020.

The average daily population of Nebraska’s prisons was “a little more than 155 percent of the design capacity” as of Oct. 20, the committee stated.

Prisons designed to hold a capacity of 3,435 inmates held an average daily population of 5,343 this year.

State law also authorizes the governor to declare an overcrowding emergency before that 2020 date, but that is not likely to occur.

The oversight committee stated that while all branches of state government “must continue to work collaboratively to address overcrowding in Nebraska’s prison system,” the state also needs to begin to prepare to administer an overcrowding emergency.

“I’m a Girl Scout and it’s good to be prepared,” Sen. Laura Ebke of Crete, the committee chairwoman, said during a telephone interview following submission of the report to the Legislature’s Judiciary and Appropriations committees.

“We want to kind of nudge the Parole Board along; it’s important for us to be thinking about it.”

“If we know what the Parole Board’s plan is, maybe we have to do some rethinking in 2019,” Ebke said. “Maybe we look at whether we should be moving people into county jails before we reach the emergency.”

In case of an overcrowding emergency, Nebraska law instructs the Board of Parole to immediately consider all parole-eligible inmates for release with exceptions for those who pose a significant risk or who would appear unlikely to follow conditions of parole.

Parole would also be denied to inmates whose release “would have a very significant and quantifiable effect on institutional discipline,” according to the prison overcrowding law.

While preparing for an overcrowding emergency, the legislative, executive and judicial branches should “continue to work collaboratively to address overcrowding in Nebraska’s prison system,” the report stated.

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The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in August asking the court to intervene to reduce overcrowding in Nebraska’s prison system and address a number of other issues.

Federal courts have intervened in other states on the issue of overcrowding, sometimes prompting the construction of expensive new prisons.

The legislative oversight committee will continue its work in 2018.

That probably will include on-site visits to major institutions in Lincoln, Omaha and Tecumseh, Ebke said.

The committee visited all 10 correctional institutions before preparing its report this year.

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