City Council Wants State to Take on Furlough Program

Nicole Ebat

The Omaha City Council voted Tuesday to draft a bill cracking down on the prison's furlough program.

Omaha's lobbyist Jack Cheloa will take that bill and others approved by the council to state lawmakers in January to be voted on.

The furlough program allows approved inmates to be temporarily released from prison--usually for a few hours or a weekend. A furlough is generally approved for family matters or religious or job-finding programs.

But the program itself has been under fire since an inmate, out on furlough for the weekend, was killed after a police officer says he lunged for a gun back in September.

The city wants to keep inmates convicted of gang related or violent crimes from being allowed the time off from prison.

"People who commit these types of crimes have to be willing to serve the time for it," said Council member Ben Gray.

He said the decision to vote for the program changes "gave him heartburn" because he would rather focus on preventing crime, but he notes "people who commit these kinds of crimes have to be prepared to serve the time for it."

Teela Mickles, the founder of Compassion in Action helps families prepare for an inmate's release. She says if inmates aren't given the incentive of good behavior, many are going to be "worse than when they went in."

"If there's no furlough transitional piece, then you're asking hardened criminals, gang-related criminals to do their time," said Mickles. "They're going to do their time and they're going to come back out into the community cold turkey."

Some council members mentioned they'd like to see it pass, but with a deadline.

"Let's say if we get violence under control over the next 3, 4, 5 years and the trend starts going down, well at that time you want to reinvestigate something like this," said Council member Franklin Thompson.

But Mickels thinks if you severely limit who can take advantage of furloughs, violence could go in the other direction.

"That transition is so important. Cold turkey--that's where you get your recidivism rate. When they come out not prepared, they go right back in, why wouldn't they? But if they have the incentive of a furlough program, then there's opportunity for them to change."