Brad Ashford: The time is right for Nebraska prison reform

March 7, 2022 4:00 am
Nebraska State Penitentiary

The Nebraska State Penitentiary on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022, in Lincoln. (Rebecca S. Gratz for the Nebraska Examiner)

For the better part of my legislative career, I have focused on the justice system, including chairing the Judiciary Committee and working to reform juvenile justice. Lately I have been reflecting on the opportunity this session to address prison reform, a critical element to our state’s success.

Constructing a new facility without accompanying programs would be useless. It is folly to think that a new facility meant only to house inmates will solve anything.  We need to center our approach on mental health — before, during and after incarceration.  Mental health includes behavioral health and substance abuse. Additional programs which require our attention include job reentry, housing and family reunification.

And let’s not allow a new facility to be an add-on. If the new facility is built, the current dilapidated facility must be demolished. The tax burden would increase substantially if both facilities were in use, and we do not want to travel down the road of incarcerating more of our fellow Nebraskans.

I am encouraged in talking to my former colleagues in the Nebraska Legislature. Sen. Steve Lathrop, leading members of the Unicameral, members of the Judiciary branch led by the Nebraska Supreme Court, together with the governor and the Executive Branch are working toward a solution.

I am heartened by the willingness of the legislative body to listen to the community most impacted by this issue. We are learning that the families who have personal experience are a crucial part of the conversation. We must do more listening.

In my years working on this issue, I believe we have the best opportunity we have seen in decades to accomplish these goals. I often found that the best ideas occur in the last minutes of the legislative session. We must not lose hope that a meaningful compromise is always possible.

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Brad Ashford
Brad Ashford

Brad Ashford was a public servant and attorney. He served four terms in the Nebraska Unicameral Legislature and one term in the U.S. House of Representatives. Brad's later focus was on bringing a New Attitude to all involved in governance — to work together without regard to labels. He died April 19, 2022. His widow, Ann Ashford, continues to share some of Brad's essays with the Nebraska Examiner.