June 5, 2022

“We can’t build our way out of this!” is the common, knee-jerk response to the question of overcrowding in Nebraska’s state prison system.  Although rarely accompanied with evidence, that statement is nonetheless parroted reflexively.

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There has been little pushback against that opinion over the years, with many citizens assuming the statement must be founded on “settled science,” or some form of proven academic study and research. 

It isn’t.

Academia has examined nearly every possible aspect of incarceration, crafting deep demographic profiles of prison populations based on every conceivable data point, but have inexplicably avoided diving into the most obvious metric affecting prison overcrowding: how many prison beds per capita should a state have?

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Surely there must be a reasonably prudent level of capacity for housing convicted criminals in a state — a measure that presumably would take into account population size, as prison capacity is directly upstream from prison overcrowding. 

Don’t misunderstand me.  It’s not as if the subject hasn’t come up.  Policymakers have approached this question repeatedly over the last century, with increasing intensity in the last forty years. 

However, the question of how much prison capacity is optimal is never discussed alone.  It is always tied to larger questions regarding the justice system as a whole, and even then, the question is never directly answered — simply glossed over as some archaic silliness too brutal and obtuse for discussion among enlightened folk.

From the 2009 “Jail Capacity Planning Guide: A Systems Approach,” the preface tells us:

Focusing on managing risk and improving outcomes shifts the nature of jail planning. It challenges decisionmakers to think about custody resources as a continuum of choices, not as a single option that leads only to housing inmates in a facility. It asks decisionmakers to view jail as a gateway to individual change, not an endpoint. It calls upon them to plan as much for programs as they do for beds.

The remaining 87 pages address programs, without addressing beds, perfectly illustrating the dearth of information regarding our original question: how many prison beds per capita should a state have?