Kellee Kucera-Moreno knows her husband screwed up.
Out on parole in February, after being locked up for nearly a decade, Alfredo Moreno found the cops again. Or rather they found him, in a parked Pontiac Grand Am in a car wash lot in central Lincoln just before 10 p.m. Feb. 22.
Police had dispatch run his name, learned he was on parole on drug and weapon charges and asked him if he’d used lately.
In court records, they say Alfredo Moreno admitted, then and there, that he had used cocaine the night before and meth a couple days before that.
Police say he told them to go ahead and search.
They found a corner of a plastic bag with cocaine residue on the floor of the driver’s seat and a tied-off plastic bag with a half gram of it on the passenger seat, along with a 5-inch knife, his brother’s.
Alfredo “Al” Moreno had relapsed and went to jail that night, then back to prison, his parole revoked.
He finished the old sentence in June. But by August, a Lancaster County judge was sending Moreno back for five more years — the max — on the new charges: possession of a deadly weapon by a felon and attempted possession of cocaine, a misdemeanor.
“My husband has a disease,” Kellee Kucera-Moreno said. “I don’t see him as a criminal. I see him as someone who relapsed.”
The reality is, according to the latest data sheet from the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, more than 13.5 percent of the 5,293 people in prison here are there on drug charges.
And that’s not counting still more in prison on charges fueled by drug addiction, like thefts or burglaries.
Some of the inmates are addicts, like Al, who relapse when they get out, leaving judges, parole officers and families to deal with the consequences.
“We’re talking about people who essentially have a health problem,” said Lancaster County Public Defender Joe Nigro.
He supports a drug diversion program that he says could keep some of these people from coming back. It would be a better investment than just locking them up, Nigro said.
Despite sentencing reform passed by the Legislature in 2015 and 2016 aimed at reducing the population and a lawsuit filed by ACLU of Nebraska, the state’s prison population has continued to grow, according to prison statistics released in August.
In his weekly column, Gov. Pete Ricketts said Monday that all three branches of government have taken an “all hands on deck” approach to justice reinvestment, which includes sentencing reforms. And the state is making strides within the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services to better achieve its mission, he said.
“From expanding facility capacity to automating sentence calculation processes and expanding programming, the agency has been adopting data-driven practices to modernize its operations and facilities,” Ricketts said.
He said he worked with the Legislature in 2015 to secure $37 million over two years for operations of the corrections system; in 2016 to allocate an additional $26 million to expand prison facilities; and this year to provide another $75 million to improve housing and care for elderly inmates and programming for inmates with behavioral health needs.
“We are beginning to see tangible results from these investments,” he said, while acknowledging there still is work to do.
But he’s made it clear what isn’t on the table.
“To just let people out of prison would endanger public safety,” Ricketts said in August about the ACLU of Nebraska filing a federal lawsuit that could result in the court directing the state to drastically reduce the number of inmates at prisons.
Kucera-Moreno would like to see the state transition more nonviolent offenders, like her husband, out of prison and into the community sooner.
Her own family tells her, if you do the crime, you do the time, she said. But she sees it differently.
“Relapsing is not a crime,” she said.
Kucera-Moreno also knows the man she married in May 2014, who she met at a meeting for recovering substance abusers, doesn’t look good on paper, she said. The latest sentence is his fourth prison term, nearly all drug related. But it isn’t an unusual situation for an addict, she said.
As anyone who has tried to quit smoking knows, giving up a vice isn’t easy, she said.
But for parolees, the stakes are even higher.
At some point people are going to have to consider that it’s not just black and white, she said, and that the people going to prison are husbands and fathers and sons.
“It’s just devastating to the families,” Kucera-Moreno said.
She is on disability and cleans houses but lost her husband’s truck after he went to prison because she couldn’t keep up with payments. She can talk to her husband 15 minutes a day. Calling cards cost her $50 a month. She puts $10 a week on his books. Now he’s been moved to a prison in Omaha.
It all costs her time, money and energy, Kucera-Moreno said.
“It’s just so frustrating,” she said.
Kucera-Moreno said her husband knows he made a mistake, but he didn’t hurt anybody. The state is locking up sick people, she said, and sending him back to an overcrowded prison doesn’t help anything.
One day not long ago, after cleaning a house near the prison’s main office, she decided to stop and try to talk to Scott Frakes, the director of Nebraska’s prisons. She couldn’t get in to see him but left a message for him that the prison needs more AA meetings on the inside.
Kucera-Moreno wishes there were more alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders like her husband.
“Al’s not a bad person. He made a bad choice,” she said. “You just can’t keep locking him up.”
His release date currently is projected for Dec. 2, 2019.