Perhaps one-year increments aren’t the best way to look at Nebraska’s prison system.

After all, decades of neglect from state government helped fuel booming inmate populations, high overtime and turnover among prison staff and a lawsuit alleging living conditions that violated prisoners’ constitutional rights. This didn’t happen overnight.

But 12-month milestones are about the only way average Nebraskans have to see inside their prisons, through the annual reports produced by the Office of Inspector General of Nebraska Corrections, an independent position created by and answerable to the Nebraska Legislature.

And what’s clear after the third edition, released last week, is that a major overhaul of Nebraska’s justice system – both in terms of sentencing and prison operation – is needed, with the looming prison overcrowding emergency set to be declared in 2020 if things don’t change before then.

The good news: Nebraska’s prison overcrowding rate declined last year.

The bad news: It fell from 159 percent of designed capacity to only 157 percent, owing almost exclusively to the opening of a new dormitory at the Community Corrections Center-Lincoln with 100 beds, which kept Nebraska’s correctional system among the nation’s most overcrowded.

A mere 2 percent decline isn’t going get Nebraska’s prisons down to the 140 percent threshold enshrined to avoid the emergency declaration. If the state fails to reach that benchmark, a colossal release of inmates – at least 1,000, at the current rate – will follow, regardless of how well they’ve been rehabilitated.

Yes, construction is an expensive means to reduce overcrowding. But it also misses the core problem (laws that promote mass incarceration) and central mission (rehabilitating the vast majority of offenders for society) of any corrections system.

Money devoted to building additional prison space doesn’t go toward reforming the individuals within its walls. It also doesn’t address the critical concern of skyrocketing overtime pay or unsustainable staff turnover – which need to be fixed quickly to ensure both the security of and necessary programming for prisoners, as the report plainly illustrates – at Nebraska prisons, either.

Additional beds and staff are short-term answers. The long-term goal must always be preparing inmates to reintegrate into society after they’ve served their punishment.

That much is evident in the official names of Nebraska prison facilities. Nearly all include “corrections” on their signs. Other states take it a step further, with “reformatories.” Above all else, this tenet must not be forgotten.

And, when it comes to prisons, forgetting is easy to do. They’re out of sight and out of mind for most Nebraskans.

Still, we must do better to ensure prisoners’ safety behind bars and success once they leave it. As the annual report shows, Nebraska has a long way to go to achieve that goal.

Journal Star Editorial Board

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