Prisons overcrowded, but DAs, cops balk at sentencing reforms

prison
Nevada Department of Corrections Facebook photo

Members of an advisory commission charged with reviewing the state’s justice system are zeroing in on reforms they hope will decrease Nevada’s prison population, which has increased 7 percent in the last decade despite an overall decline nationwide.

But representatives from county prosecutors and law enforcement, citing public safety, are objecting to the reforms.

Meeting this week, members of the Advisory Commission on the Administration of Justice discussed recommendations to revise burglary, theft and drug offense statutes. The commission is scheduled to meet Jan. 11 to finalize draft legislation to submit to the 2019 Nevada legislative session.

Earlier this year, Gov. Brian Sandoval ordered up a review of Nevada’s justice system. The Crime and Justice Institute has been compiling data and sharing its findings regarding sentencing, release and corrections practices in a series of presentations.

In addition to determining Nevada’s prison population growth, recidivism rates, sentence lengths, sentencing options and the effectiveness of speciality courts, data presented the commission showed the majority of inmates within the Nevada Department of Corrections are there for non-violent property and drug crimes.

“Are we putting people in jail for the right amount of time to achieve the criminal justice outcomes that we want?” asked Amy Rose, the legal director for the ACLU of Nevada. “I’m convinced from the data and from the many, many meetings that we’ve had with CJI that we are not.”

For one, the group discussed breaking down burglary statutes, which currently don’t differentiate between entering a motor vehicle, buildings or a residence and are lumped in with home invasions. 

According to the Crime and Justice Institute, 63 percent of burglaries in 2017 were non-residential — 17 percent involved vehicles, 23 percent retail stores, and 23 percent were classified as others. More than 70 percent of the burglaries didn’t have a victim present.

non violent tho
Crime and Justice Institute

“Burglary is the predominate driver of our Nevada prison population,” said Nevada Supreme Court Justice James Hardesty.

Yet all burglaries are considered a category B felony and come with a one to 10 year sentence — it becomes two to 15 years if the offender has a weapon — which Rose said is “really out of step with the way the rest of the country has burglary statutes set up.”

The Crime and Justice Institute suggested breaking burglaries down into categories, such as entering motor vehicle, buildings, commercial buildings, residence and home invasions. Each would have a different felony category and sentence length. Unlawful entering of a motor vehicle could even be reduced to a misdemeanor on the first and second offense with up to six months in jail, according to one recommendation.   

Committee members Chuck Calloway, the police director from the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, and Douglas County District Attorney Mark Jackson were opposed to most of the options proposed at the meeting.  

Jackson, speaking on behalf of the state District Attorneys Associations, says his main concern is public safety, and that he feared the current proposals would be create unintended consequences, such as higher crime rates.

“We can’t sacrifice public safety for money,” Jackson said. “Our focus shouldn’t be just about getting people out of our prisons. It’s to make sure the right people are being let go or to make sure the right people aren’t being sent to prison.”

The committee also discussed addressing theft crimes. Theft of property equaling any amount $650 and higher is considered a felony under current law, and anything from $3,500 to $100,000 is deemed a category B felony that could carry a sentence of one to 10 years.

One reform favored by some committee members would differentiate between the crimes as follows:

  • Anything under $1,000 is considered a misdemeanor with up to six months in jail
  • $1000 to $2,000 being a gross misdemeanor with up to a year in jail
  • $2,000 to $25,000 a category D felony with a one to four years sentence
  • $25,000 to $50,000 a category C felony with a one to five years sentence
  • $50,000 to $100,000 a category B felony with a one to 10 years sentence
  • Anything more than $100,000 a category B felony with a one to 15 year sentence

The Crime and Justice Institute also presented options to change sentencing requirements for drug trafficking to distinguish punishment for higher weights and also make the severity of sentence contingent on intent to sell or manufacture.

Under the current statute, drug trafficking comes with a mandatory prison sentence. Suggested policy proposals would change the mandatory sentence requirements for lower weights, which means less people could end up in prison.  

Drug possession, as discussed by the group, could go from being a felony to a misdemeanor on the first two convictions.

Echoing concerns about public safety they had made about reforming burglary sentences, Calloway and Jackson opposed suggested theft, drug possession and trafficking reforms as well.

Favored policy proposals, as well as concerns from some in the group, will be discussed at a final Advisory Commission on the Administration of Justice meeting in January. A separate subcommittee also met Dec. 18 to discuss release and re-entry reforms, and will also present its proposals in January.

“Justice reinvestment is not about opening the prison doors,” said Leonard Engel with the Crime and Justice Institute. “It’s not about decarceration. It’s about reinvesting in things that work effectively to address recidivism and improve public safety.”

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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