Justice

What The Republican Party’s New, Unspeakably Racist Attack Ad Is Really About

CREDIT: Screenshot from National Republican Congressional Committee ad

The National Republican Congressional Committee wants you to believe that Nebraska state Sen. Brad Ashford, the Democratic challenger to incumbent Rep. Lee Terry (R-NE), unleashed a very scary looking black man on the people of Nebraska to commit multiple murders. That’s the message conveyed by an ad they posted on their YouTube page on Friday, which focuses on a series of high profile murders committed by a man who had recently been released from prison on unrelated charges:

The reality, however, is far more nuanced than the narrative presented by this ad. And the events that led up to these murders have very little to do with Ashford.

Nikko Jenkins is a severely mentally ill man who was previously incarcerated on robbery and assault charges. A prison psychiatrist diagnosed him with schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder, and labeled him “one of the most dangerous people I have ever evaluated.” While he was incarcerated, Jenkins repeatedly told prison officials that he “planned a violent, murderous rampage upon his release.” Less than a month after he was released from prison in 2013, Jenkins carried out his threats, killing four people in Omaha.

Jenkins believes that he was ordered to kill by Apophis, an evil, ancient Egyptian serpent god. A report by the Nebraska State Ombudsman’s Office criticized state prison officials for not attempting to have Jenkins committed due to his mental illness once it became clear that it was not safe to release him from prison.

The NRCC’s ad, however, tells a very different story. In the GOP’s narrative, “Nikko Jenkins was released from prison early, after serving only half his sentence” thanks to a law that Ashford supports.

The law at issue is the state’s “good time” law, which has existed in various forms for nearly half a century. Under the good time law’s framework, prisoners earn “good time” for the time that they spend in prison, and this good time is counted against the time that they need to serve behind bars. Meanwhile, prisoners who commit various offenses can lose their good time — Jenkins for example, lost 18 months of good time for offenses that included an assault upon a prison guard. Thus, the law gives prison officials some flexibility to release inmates who behave well while incarcerated, while requiring other prisoners to serve more time.

Under a 1992 amendment to the good time law that overwhelmingly passed the state legislature, prisoners earn one day of good time for each day they spend in prison — that’s the likely basis for the GOP’s claim that Jenkins served “only half his sentence” (Ashford was a member of the state legislature when this amendment was enacted, but he was not present for the vote). In 2011, the state’s Republican Gov. Dave Heineman successfully lobbied the legislature to increase the amount of good time earned by inmates even further. This 2011 amendment was proposed by Heineman’s own Corrections Department. Ashford cosponsored this bill.

In the wake of the Jenkins incident, Heineman has reversed course, and he now wants to make it harder for inmates to earn good time. He’s also attacked the Ombudman’s report which suggested that the Corrections Department was at fault for freeing Jenkins. Ashford, by contrast, has defended the report — though he also endorsed Gov. Heineman’s decision to increase the amount of good time corrections officials can take away from inmates who commit serious offenses.

So the reality is that Nebraska has a longstanding framework of relatively long prison sentences that are moderated by the good time law. Ashford has only played a minor role in shaping this framework, and the 2011 amendment that Ashford co-sponsored enjoyed the enthusiastic support of the state’s GOP governor. There is now an important debate going on in Nebraska about whether the state’s good time law should be amended once again, as Heineman argues, or whether the errors which led to Jenkins being released are best addressed within the Corrections Department, as Ashford appears to believe.

But it is absurd to suggest, as the GOP ad does, that Ashford is responsible for Jenkins’ release and the tragedy that soon followed. If his support for the state’s good time law makes Ashford responsible for Jenkins’ crimes, then Heineman and numerous other state lawmakers share that blame.