Nebraska officials searching for prisoners mistakenly released early over several years

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Nebraska mistakenly released hundreds of prison inmates over several years because corrections officials miscalculated their sentences, and law enforcement is seeking to re-incarcerate about two dozen of them, Gov. Dave Heineman said Friday.

Heineman said that the state let 306 inmates out of prison early because of the errors, which were first reported by the Omaha World-Herald earlier this month. Officials will not pursue the 257 who would have completed their sentences by now, assuming that they've stayed out of trouble. Three others have died since they were released, and five have successfully completed their parole.

"Obviously, there was a mistake made," Heineman, a Republican, said. "The individuals who made those mistakes are going to be held accountable. That's the next phase, after we complete this phase. ... There's no way this should have occurred."

The World-Herald report revealed that the Department of Correctional Services failed to follow two Nebraska Supreme Court rulings that spelled out the proper way to calculate prison sentences. Inmates who are ordered to serve a mandatory minimum sentence first have to complete that term before they start receiving "good time" credit, which cuts their remaining sentence in half.

An unspecified number of former inmates were returned to custody on Thursday as the prison roundup began. Arrest warrants were issued out of eight Nebraska counties, but state officials declined to name the former inmates out of concern for the safety of law enforcement officials who may have to re-arrest them. The Nebraska State Patrol was working with local and federal law enforcement.

Some former inmates qualify for furlough programs, and one is being paroled.

Attorney General Jon Bruning said the inmates being pursued generally have one to four years remaining on their sentences. Many are habitual criminals, he said, but most are not considered dangerous. Bruning said those who are returned will receive credit for the time they spent outside of prison.

"Each individual case is different," Bruning said. "We're trying to protect the public on one hand, and be empathetic in the fact that some of these guys are out, have found jobs and have started to be productive citizens. We're trying to balance all of that."

The governor's office said 20 to 25 warrants were issued out of Douglas, Lancaster, Sarpy, Scotts Bluff, Colfax, Dawson, Gosper and Hall counties.

One example of the sentence miscalculation was the case of inmate Marvin Buggs, who was sentenced to 30 years in prison for manslaughter, with a mandatory minimum of 10 years. His sentence was miscalculated, though he was not released.

Under the correct sentence, Buggs has to serve 10 full years before he starts earning "good time" -- meaning he would serve at least 20 years before becoming eligible for parole. Instead, the Department of Correctional Services allowed him to receive "good time" right away -- which would allow for his release in only 15 years. His release date has since been changed.

As of Friday, corrections officials had determined that 567 inmates who were not released were given incorrect sentences.

Michael Kenney, who was appointed director of the Department of Correctional Services in September, said his agency takes full responsibility for the error. Kenney said the department will establish a new auditing system to review sentences and ensure that they're assigned correctly.

Kenney said his staff is "scrambling" to correct the prison sentences and will hold the people responsible for the mistake accountable. He declined to say whether the miscalculation was accidental, or whether the department ignored previous advice from the Nebraska attorney general's office about the proper way to calculate sentences.