DA race over, but push for reform isn’t

dems in transition
Activist Tiara Howlett spoke prior to June's primary election. "Elections aren’t the goal, just a tactic to get to our goal, Laura Martin with the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada said this week. "Photo credit: Jeniffer Solis

A 55-year-old white male was arrested July 31 because of a citation he received in February for expired license plates, registration violations and making an improper U-turn. His cash bail, according to Clark County Detention Center records, totaled $2,005.

Unpaid tickets for driving without a license and speeding at least 20 miles over the limit resulted in one 26-year-old black man to be arrested the same day. He was held at the detention center on a cash bail of $1,474 — $588 on the license charge and $886 for speeding.

Being held in jail while waiting to appear in court isn’t uncommon.

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, there are about 646,000 people in local jails across the country. An estimated 70 percent are held on pretrial, which means they haven’t been convicted of a crime.

During a May panel put on by the Clark County Black Caucus and the Las Vegas chapter of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, Phil Kohn, the Clark County Public Defender, suggested at any given time hundreds of people are being held on cash bail in the county detention center.

“I can tell you our office spoke with the jail today and there are 514 people in the detention center as we speak who have bail of $5,000 or less,” he said at the May 21 event.

Activists estimate that number may be as high as 1,000 across all jurisdictions in Southern Nevada.

“If there is supposed to be a presumption of innocence, why do we throw everyone in jail?” says Insha Rahman, the program director for Vera Institute of Justice.

This question has prompted groups to push for change, whether it’s passing legislation or electing officials who will end what critics say is overuse — and abuse — of cash bail.

Goals, tactics, and a local campaign

The fight for reform manifested in Nevada in this year’s Democratic primary for district attorney in Clark County, where incumbent Steve Wolfson beat attorney Robert Langford.

Though voters rallied behind Langford in the hope he would overhaul parts of the local justice system such as bail reform, the election was never solely about the candidates.

“Our long-term goal is to end mass incarceration,” says Laura Martin, the associate director of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada. “Elections aren’t the goal, just a tactic to get to our goal.”

The political campaign might be over, but PLAN and many other groups are looking toward its next efforts with a clear sight on the upcoming 2019 legislative session.

They will champion a bill to reform the bail system sponsored by Assemblyman Ozzie Fumo, D-Las Vegas. “In simplest terms, it’s asking judges to look at non-monetary conditions instead of bail,” Fumo says.

Options could be anything from house arrest and diversion programs to releasing individuals into someone’s custody. Bail would be the absolute last option.

“It wouldn’t end the bail system, which is what people are saying,” Fumo adds.

Along with disproportionately affecting people of color, Fumo says the current bail system is costly, since jailing people can cost about $150 per day. “This would save taxpayers millions,” he says. “There hasn’t been a study looking at the cost savings, but there should be.”

While the movement to curb mass incarceration has garnered growing and in some cases bipartisan national support, reformers across the country are bearing down on tangible fixes at the local level.

“On the very basic level, bail reform is something easy they can put their hands around,” says Rahman. “They know it’s deeply unfair when someone is sitting in jail because they don’t have $500. This seems like this could be a solvable issue.”

Jail populations have grown over the decades partly due to pre-trial detention and over-utilization of the bail system, Rahman says.

But in recent years calls for reform have taken on new urgency.

Martin points to the shooting of 18-year-old Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri — Aug. 9 is the fourth anniversary. Advocates have long recognized the over-criminalization of people of color in America, but Brown’s death ignited the national discussion about police brutality and the disparities communities of color face in the criminal justice system even more.

In the wake of these discussions, organizations such as Black Lives Matter were born and began addressing the treatment of black and brown people. Bail reform made its way on to a long list of topics that needed to be addressed.

Rahman says stories like Kalief Browder, an African-American teenager who spent three years waiting for trial at New York’s infamous Rikers Island after being accused of stealing a backpack, have also sparked outraged.

Response has been seen through both federal and local efforts.

In 2017, Sen. Kamala Harris and Sen. Rand Paul introduced a bill that would provide grants to states to replace systems that use cash bail as a condition of pre-trial release in criminal cases. The legislation would also help states collect data on pre-trial processing practices. In July, Sen. Bernie Sanders introduced a bill to end cash bail at a federal level.

New Jersey implemented a risk assessment tool to contend with its cash bail system.

“They were able to cut the jail population by 20 percent in one year because of the new bail regime,” Rahman says.

In places like Harris County, Tex., lawsuits have challenged the constitutionality of cash bail. Rahman says what makes it most noteworthy is that the district attorney agreed and came out in favor of bail reform.

In Nevada, Assemblywoman Dina Neal introduced Assembly Bill 136 in 2017, which would have given judges more flexibility in determining bail. Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed it, calling the proposal “new and unproven.

PLAN, the Clark County Black Caucus and other organizations turned their focus to the district attorney’s race, which attracted 97,306 voters — since it was a primary for democratic candidates, only Democrats could vote.

Phone banking while on parole

Wolfson defeated Langford 55 percent to 45 percent. Though their candidate didn’t win, Martin says the race helped energize the community around justice reform issues.

“We already won so much,” she says. “We had people who were formerly incarcerated and out on parole phone banking for us.”

Candidates in other races even began talking about the issues.

“Even (Clark County Commission and gubernatorial candidate Steve) Sisolak said in a TV interview he would support getting rid of the cash bail system,” Martin adds.

Leslie Turner, an organizer for PLAN’s mass liberation campaign, says the campaign made Wolfson talk more about his reform agenda, including efforts to end the school-to-prison pipeline. Days prior to his victory in the June primary, Wolfson told the Current that he supported a pre-trial risk assessment tool designed to keep only violent offenders in jail and that was implemented as a pilot program in Clark County in 2016.

As of now, however, Clark County Detention Center records still show many people in jail are there for all manner of charges, from gross lewdness, to domestic violence, to repeat traffic violations.

“A lot of judges seem hesitant to implement” risk assessment procedures, says Thomas Pitaro, Fumo’s law office colleague at Pitaro & Fumo.

Rahman says risk assessment tools do have the potential of working as long as judges are aware of the racial disparities between those who normally qualify and those who don’t.

PLAN and other groups are working to gather support for Fumo’s proposed legislation.

But the reform effort doesn’t stop there. Turner says they still want to see the district attorney embrace approaches such as more emphasizes on diversion programs, which favors rehabilitation, or restorative justice, which focuses on reconciliation between offenders and victims. “He could even implement a policy not to ask for bail on traffic cases,” she says.

Along with reforming — if not outright ending — the money bail approach, organizers want to see an end to unnecessary plea deals and more data-tracking to ensure transparency.

Prior to the primary, Wolfson told the Current “I’ve been a Democrat since I could vote, and I’ve always voted progressive.”

Turner says the group has reached out to Wolfson since his victory to talk with him about reforms and steps he could take. “We want to keep pressing,” Turner says. “We want to know, ‘How progressive are you?’”

Efforts to reach Wolfson for comment were unsuccessful.

Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years.  He started his career at View Neighborhood News, the community edition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. During his seven years with the R-J, he won several first place awards from the Nevada Press Association and was named its 2011 Journalist of Merit. He left the paper in 2017 and spent a year as a freelance journalist accumulating bylines anywhere from The Washington Post to Desert Companion. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues. Born and mostly raised in Las Vegas, Lyle graduated from UNLV with a degree in Journalism and Media Studies. He is currently working on his master's in Communications through an online program at Syracuse University. In his spare time, Lyle cooks through Ina Garten recipes in hopes of one day becoming the successor to the Barefoot Contessa throne. When he isn’t cooking (or eating), he also enjoys reading, running and re-watching episodes of “Parks and Recreation.” He is also in the process of learning kickboxing.

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