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Nevada Lawmakers Debate Criminal Justice Reform Bill

Published March 16, 2019 by ADRAS & ALTIG, Attorneys at Law
Man in handcuffs standing before a judge in court

Does Nevada put too many people in prison? That’s the shorthand question behind a debate begun this month by lawmakers in the Nevada Assembly over legislation that would overhaul Nevada’s criminal justice system if it becomes law.

Supporters of the Nevada criminal justice reform measure, known as Assembly Bill 236, say it will significantly reduce Nevada’s prison population and recidivism rates while saving the state hundreds of millions of dollars over the next decade according to The Las Vegas Review-Journal. Opponents argue that the bill ignores public safety concerns and disregards the rights of crime victims.

Assemblyman Steve Yeager, D-Las Vegas, told the Judiciary Committee, which he chairs, that if the bill is approved, its changes would save the state of Nevada $640 million over the next 10 years by reducing growth in the state’s prison population by 89 percent.

Prosecutors and law enforcement officials acknowledge that some reforms are needed, but say the changes included in the legislation would hurt public safety by easing punishments for certain crimes and allowing offenders to avoid having their probation revoked for probation violations.

Jason Woodbury, president of the Nevada District Attorneys Association, said the bill will make it practically impossible for habitual criminals to receive harsher jail sentences, according to the Sun.

Nevada Assembly’s Proposals for Criminal Reform

Yeager told those assembled for a Judiciary Committee hearing March 8 that the criminal reform legislation is the single most important criminal justice bill in memory, according to the Nevada Independent. It would be the first overhaul of criminal sentencing in Nevada in more than 20 years.

Among more than two dozen policy recommendations, the bill calls for:

  • Removing mandatory minimum sentences for several crimes
  • Giving judges more discretion in sentencing
  • Expanding some offenders’ eligibility for probation
  • Reducing penalties for certain drug offenses
  • Reclassifying several felonies
  • Raising the felony theft threshold from $650 to $2,000
  • Adding tiers to burglary crimes and corresponding penalties
  • Making more offenders eligible for treatment for drug or mental health problems instead of incarceration.

The bill is based on a report from the Nevada Advisory Commission on the Administration of Justice, which studied criminal case files and trends in Nevada’s prison population over the last 10 years. The report says that, while many states have seen significant declines in both crime rates and prison populations in the past decade, Nevada’s prison population has grown significantly.

The state’s current imprisonment rate is 15 percent higher than the national average and the average prison sentence has increased by 20 percent, the report says.

Nearly 30 percent of the state’s inmate population requires treatment or medication for a mental health need. But the study said the costs of housing a growing prison population has limited the state’s ability to fund treatment services.

The prison population is projected to continue to grow. By 2028, it is expected to cost the state an additional $770 million in operating costs and capital expenditures to build or lease new prisons.

The report’s 25 recommendations, if enacted into law would avert 89 percent of the projected prison population growth and reduce the projected 2028 prison population by more than 1,000 beds. The criminal reform measures would avoid $640 million in additional prison costs over the next decade.

Law Enforcement Officials Question Proposed Criminal Reform

Law enforcement representatives and district attorneys from counties across the state are generally opposed to the criminal justice reform bill.

Chuck Callaway, a lobbyist for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, said he wanted to work with Yeager to find a balance between public safety and reform. But he said the bill’s changes, as currently drafted, would make it seem like Nevada is taking crime less seriously. That could discourage people from visiting Las Vegas, he said.

Woodbury, the Nevada District Attorneys Association president and the Carson City DA, complained that, “It just goes too far too fast, and significantly compromises public safety.”

“Simply stated, criminal justice reform should not sacrifice public safety,” Douglas County District Attorney Mark Jackson said. “To do so would erode the public’s confidence in law enforcement, and law-abiding citizens would lose faith in the criminal justice system.”

Jackson went farther in an opinion piece for his hometown Record-Courier on March 5, writing that, “a closer look at AB 236 reveals that its primary focus is on emptying our prisons, no matter the consequences to law-abiding Nevadans.”

Yeager argued that the bill expands judicial discretion and that examples of crimes going unpunished as described in “doomsday scenarios” that opponents of the reform measures presented were unwarranted.

“Some of the examples cited by the opposition are troubling because they reflect distrust, I guess, or a lack of confidence in the discretion that would be exercised either by the parole board or by judges,” Yeager said, according to the Nevada Independent. “I would submit that it’s highly unlikely that a judge is going to divert someone with the kind of charges that you heard about and ignore the opportunity of victims to participate in those (criminal proceedings).”

The Nevada Attorneys for Criminal Justice, a non-profit organization of criminal defense attorneys located throughout Nevada, has submitted a letter to the Assembly Judiciary Committee stating that the organization is, on balance, supportive of AB236. The legislation is the product of a detailed review of Nevada’s criminal justice system. The NACJ does not agree with everything in the bill, but described the legislation as a strong compromise that will update Nevada law, save $640 million, and make the system more effective and fair.

The debate over the bill has a long way to go.

Based on our experience as Las Vegas criminal defense attorneys, the legal team at Adras & Altig has often observed that our clients facing criminal charges would benefit more from drug or alcohol treatment services than from imprisonment and other punitive measures. The Las Vegas criminal defense attorneys of Adras & Altig try to help residents and visitors who are charged with crimes in Clark County resolve the charges and receive the treatment they need to have productive lives.

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