Lawmakers take on “robust agenda” of criminal justice bills

By: - February 11, 2019 5:58 am
cross your fingers

Members of the Assembly Judiciary Committee meeting in Carson City in February. (Nevada Current file photo)

A large amount of inmates leave Nevada Department of Corrections facilities without proper identification, putting them in a vulnerable situation.

“We give them a check with the money they made while incarcerated, they can’t cash the check without an ID,” Nevada Department of Corrections director James Dzurenda told the Assembly Judiciary Committee last week. “They go to the Vegas strip, and sell these checks for a quarter of the price. It’s the only way to cash them. You can’t get a hotel room without an ID. Try to get Health and Human Services help without an ID. Try to get addiction services without an ID. You can’t.”

When a person is arrested, Dzurenda explained, he can give any name. “So he says his name is James Smith, registers as James Smith, does fingerprints as James Smith and becomes James Smith and is discharged as James Smith,” he said. “If he gets re-arrested and says his name is Robert Jones, he becomes Robert Jones, aka James Smith.”

Assembly Judiciary Committee Chairman Steve Yeager said lawmakers voted in the 2017 session to mandate that the Department of Corrections verify the ID of all prisoners through birth certificates. Now, Dzurenda said the law requires him “to confiscate any ID on the way out the door if we do not have it verified.”

“I don’t think we realized how hard it was for some people to obtain a birth certificate,” Yeager said. “If we keep the statute as is, we are going to have the same problem. You simply cannot get some of these birth certificates.”

Dzurenda highlighted the ID issue as a Department of Corrections priority, one which lawmakers could fix during the 2019 legislative session through Assembly Bill 10. The committee was originally scheduled to hear the bill Feb. 5, but rescheduled it for later in the session.

A session of reform

Several Democratic lawmakers as well as Attorney General Aaron Ford have said that criminal justice system reforms are overdue in Nevada, and must be addressed by the Legislature this year.

The Assembly Judiciary Committee is expected to hear about 200 bills in the 2019 session, roughly the same amount from 2017. So far, there is specific language drafted for 24 bills the committee is sponsoring.

“It seems like we have a more robust agenda, but I just think some of the stuff we are doing is a little more higher profile,” Yeager said. “A lot of those bills haven’t been drafted yet. We have to see what they look like to make the determination of how easy or difficult they’ll be to get through.”

Current drafted bills include efforts to increase the number of district judges in certain districts, strengthen oversight for indigent defendants in criminal cases and enhance due process within the Commission on Judicial Discipline.

During the session, the committee is also expected to introduce one, large bill that combines 25 policy proposals recommended by the Crime and Justice Institute. Over the last six months, the Crime and Justice Institute delved into ways to reduce Nevada’s incarceration rate and reform Nevada’s justice system.

Since the policy recommendations bill will have fiscal notes, Yeager said it would also have to pass the Assembly Committee on Ways and Means.

Lawmakers will also looking at decriminalizing traffic violations and reforming the state’s bail system. Yeager has seen early bill language of the latter and is expecting more tweaks to come before a final version is presented.

“One of the challenges of that bill is to figure out what should remain criminal versus what should remain civil,” Yeager said. The complexities also include figuring out punishments for default judgments if people don’t show up to court, whether a license should be suspended if a person simply cannot pay the fine, and if it’s appropriate to garnish wages.

Even though there are hundreds of bills to consider, none were heard during the first week of the session, which Yeager said was the result of rescheduling due to several snowstorms.

Instead, the committee heard presentations from agencies such as the Department of Corrections, the Department of Public Safety and Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. 

Dzurenda also touched on issues the Nevada Department of Corrections faced because it only keeps paper medical and mental health records. “We have a lot of bumps in the road for electronic health services and electronic records because of broadband issues,” he said. “We cannot connect all our facilities. That’s going to be a big part of the session, how we can actually finally connect all of our facilities through broadband so we can transfer information electronically.”

It’s not just about sharing information across corrections facilities but also providing records to the larger community people are being released into. Since starting at the department, Dzurenda said they’ve changed a lot of common go-to medications, such as Prozac, to reduce violence — a move, he added, that has reduced violence incidents by 45 percent among the prison population.

“So if that paper doesn’t get to the community, they don’t know what we’ve done with (an inmate’s) mental health or medical services,” he said. “It can be devastating what can happen in the community with that.”

Yeager said he wasn’t sure there would be legislation to upgrade electronic records because it could be rectified through a budget appropriation from the governor’s office.

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Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle

Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues.