Murder victim Andrea Kruger and family
A series of brutal killings in Omaha by a former inmate highlights the need for reform, and launched a battle over Nebraska’s “good time” law between politicians, prison officials and attorneys. “Good time” is the term for time that removed from a convict's imprisonment as a reward for good behavior and adherence to prison rules.
Good time can, and often does, cut a minimum sentence in half.
The negative consequences of the law are becoming widely known, after a convicted robber Nikko Jenkins allegedly shot four people just weeks after he was released from prison.
Jenkins, 26, served only 10 and a half years of a 21-year sentence for car jackings. On top of that, he committed assaults in prison, but he still got out early.
Jenkins lost 17 and a half months of his “good time” credit because he committed the jail assaults, but a judge had given him about 17 months of credit for time he’d served in a county jail, so he was released in July under the Nebraska Good Time Law.
It didn’t take long for Jenkins to extract a terrible toll on society.
Omaha police say Jenkins has already told them that he killed four people – three men and a woman – as a sacrifice to the gods, specifically the god Apophis, an awful demon in ancient Egyptian mythology.
Jenkins allegedly shot all his victims in the head, according to new reports and police statements.
In one of the worst killings, on Aug. 21, he reportedly randomly pulled a woman -- the mother of three young children, Andrea Kruger -- from her car while both were stopped at an Omaha intersection. A witness said there were four gunshots. Kruger was found dead in the street.
Jenkins faces four counts of first-degree murder, four counts of use of a weapon to commit a felony and six counts of possession of a weapon by a prohibited person.
He pled not guilty in court on Oct. 7.
The vicious shootings have stirred up Nebraska’s lawmakers, who are scrambling to come up with a better way to reform the system.
“We cannot let four lives be lost in vain,” said Sen. Beau McCoy of Omaha. “We cannot allow even one more person to come into harm’s way like this again. The law must protect society from monsters like this.”
McCoy supports Nebraska Department of Correctional Services plans that would double the amount of good time prisoners can lose for misconduct behind bars.
McCoy also says more drastic changes are needed.
He plans to introduce a bill to invigorate Nebraska’s death penalty, which he said is basically “dead in the water” because of legal stipulations.
Gov. Dave Heineman says good time provisions should definitely be handled more critically for violent offenders.
“With the hardened criminal and the really bad guys, we’ve got to protect the public,” he said.
Heineman has critics who say he is too slow to act. Another Omaha Senator, Heath Mello, says the governor “could change the rules and regulations governing good time unilaterally, right now.”
Mello, who chairs the Legislature’s powerful appropriations committee, said under state regulations, the maximum “good time” an inmate can lose for committing a crime in prison is only one year.
Mello said Nebraska’s prisons are nearly 50% above capacity. Because they are that full, he said Heineman could have, and should have, already declared an overcrowding emergency and taken steps to lessen the strain.
Mello says prison officials are inclined to release prisoners as soon as legally possible and make more room in the confines of the penitentiary.
He wants Heineman to put a comprehensive plan before the Legislature to get the prison population back below 140% of capacity.
The question remains -- do good time provisions really work? There is no conclusive evidence.
According to a review by the Department of Corrections, of 72,022 misconduct reports issued in prisons in 2010-12, only five percent of prison misbehaviors resulted in a loss of good time.
Good time is often taken away by an Inmate Disciplinary Committee for simple infractions such as smoking inside a cell, or serious crimes like assault, attempted escape and killing another prisoner.
In Nebraska, there are three different sets of good time calculations used to determine parole and release dates.
“According to prison rules, the amount of good time an inmate can lose for misconduct varies depending on the severity of the crime and ranges from one month to one year," said Corrections Department spokeswoman Dawn-Renee Smith.
Renee Smith said good time is taken away when appropriate but if it is used more often, it could lose its significance.
"The people who oversee the discipline process don't see the removal of good time as a tool to keep dangerous offenders, such as Jenkins, in prison longer,” she said. "Instead, it's just one of many deterrents to keep prisoners in line. We don't use good time as a hammer."
McCoy says good time should be earned by violent offenders, not automatically granted. He is working on a bill that will firm up basic requirements for good time such as no violent, potentially violent offenses or rules violations.
McCoy also wants offenders to complete any or all rehabilitation and training programs ordered by a judge or required by prison management.
But Sen. Ernie Chambers, a man who has singlehandedly stopped legislation in the past, said he “will fight tooth and nail anybody that tries to take (good time) away.”
Chambers said good time is needed for peace in prison.
“It is an incentive for inmates to behave,” he said.
The good time provision could be revised before the Legislature meets. The Nebraska Corrections Department will hold a public hearing on proposed good time rule changes at 9 a.m. Nov. 7 in Conference Room C at The Lincoln Regional Center - 801 W. Prospector Place.
The Legislature will convene later, on Jan. 8.
This report was first published in the Oct. 16 print edition of the North Platte Bulletin.