The number of state troopers patrolling Nebraska’s highways has hit a new low, although the state patrol chief said Tuesday he is seeing some good news in the rebuilding of the force.
Nebraska State Patrol Superintendent Colonel John Bolduc told a state legislative committee that he had 69 vacancies for state troops out of an authorized strength of 482 uniformed officers.
“To be blunt, it’s the worst it’s ever been,” Bolduc told members of the legislature’s Appropriations Committee.
Bolduc appeared before the committee to testify in favor of Governor Jim Pillen’s budget recommendation for the agency, which includes a record 22 percent increase in soldiers’ salaries effective July 1.
The colonel told the committee that the patrol faces the same “headwinds” that are affecting recruitment and retention in law enforcement nationwide: a tight job market, rising pay in competing jobs and “some qualifications rather spectacular” on deaths in custody. involving the police.
“It’s a big challenge,” Bolduc said.
The patrol currently has 15 recruits in a training camp, up from 20-25 in the past, but still higher than a recent camp that had eight soldier candidates.
Smaller recruiting camps
Neighboring states are also seeing fewer applicants, he said. A class of five is currently training in Kansas, Bolduc said, and a class of 20 is training in Missouri, a state with more than three times the population of Nebraska.
“We’re getting some great candidates, but we can’t get enough,” he said.
There’s been some good news lately, the colonel told the commission. Seventy-nine applicants applied to the next recruiting camp in the first 10 days, he said, which is the most on record in that time frame.
That, Bolduc said, may reflect recent publicity around pay hikes.
New state prison, overtime expenses
The colonel also told the committee that the hiring of two new fingerprint technicians, as proposed in the governor’s budget, should help address the slow turnaround in background checks that has slowed the hiring of support workers. to childhood.
The Appropriations Committee also testified on Tuesday about the proposed budget for the state prison system. It includes a $24.9 million shortfall request to cover increased salaries for security personnel and inflationary costs of food and medical care for detainees that were not covered in the latest budget.
The newly proposed budget calls for the final $95 million to build a new $350 million state prison that can house more than 1,500 inmates.
Diane Sabatka-Rine, acting director of the Nebraska Department of Corrections, said the department can’t wait any longer for the new prison. It is intended to replace the aging Lincoln State Penitentiary, where a recent water outage flooded a housing unit, forcing the relocation of 140 inmates.
Salary increases have helped, but vacancies remain
He said the pay raises given to security personnel have shown “remarkable success” in filling more than 400 vacancies among corporals and others over the past year.
But Doug Koebernick, the corrections inspector general, testified that the agency still had 362 vacancies in all positions as of Jan. 1, and that two facilities, at Tecumseh and the Welcome and Treatment Center in Lincoln, are still in “emergency” of personnel. resulting in interruptions to rehabilitation planning and other activities.
Koebernick said state prisons have a severe shortage of health care workers, with only six of the 18 psychologist posts filled and the agency lacking psychiatrists.
State Senator Anna Wishart of Lincoln questioned whether Corrections, given the salary increases, will be able to reduce overtime expenses, which exceeded $20 million in the last fiscal year.
Sabatka-Rine said overtime costs remain high for several reasons. She said one is that staff working in the two prisons under emergency staffing automatically get overtime because they work four 12-hour shifts a week.
Some refuse a new prison
Three witnesses, including representatives from Nebraska Appleseed and the ACLU of Nebraska, urged the committee to withhold funding for a new prison and instead consider sentencing reforms that gradually reduce the flow of inmates.
“Our punitive response to violence isn’t working,” said Fran Kaye, a longtime state prison volunteer.
He has suggested alternatives to incarceration, releasing inmates who pose no threat to public safety and investing in policies that address poverty and unemployment.
Diane Amdor of Nebraska Appleseed said providing tax credits for children, which have cut child poverty in half during the COVID-19 pandemic, would be a better investment.
“What does it say about our state if we spend $350 million on a new prison but don’t spend the money to address child poverty?” Amdor said.