Bail reform hearing is part policy debate, part fear-mongering

By: - March 22, 2019 5:11 am
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Members of the Assembly Judiciary Committee meeting in Carson City in February. (Nevada Current file photo)

Like many other states, Nevada is entering a lengthy discussion about whether there should be an overhaul to the current bail system and, if so, how to implement changes.

Earlier this week, Assemblyman Ozzie Fumo introduced Assembly Bill 325 to require judges to look at conditions other than cash bail when considering releasing someone from jail. “This bill is not intended to end cash bail in Nevada,” Fumo said. “All we are asking is for judges to look at cash, or monetary conditions as the last option, not the first.”

And in an echo of the policy debate over bail reform in other states, the first hearing of Fumo’s bill Thursday found lawmakers juggling policy questions — such as if it’s possible to have bail hearings for the accused within 48 hours, or if the bill takes too much power away from judges — with misinformation, fear-mongering and scare tactics.

While presenting the bill, Fumo held up fliers that had been distributed around the legislative building accusing bill sponsors of putting the community at risk. The flier even claimed, outrageously, that Stephen Paddock, who killed 58 people in Las Vegas during the 2017 Strip shooting, would have been released on bail under the proposed bill.

Assembly Judiciary Committee Chair Steve Yeager, calmly explained that people who commit mass murder wouldn’t be released on bail. “Persons arrested for murder are not entitled to bail,” Yeager said. “Nothing in this bill can change that because it is in our state constitution. The assertion that someone who commits murder or mass murder would somehow be released to the streets for free if this bill were to pass is just a patently false claim.”

During Thursday’s hearing, activists testifying from the Grant Sawyer Building in Las Vegas said bail bond agents in the room were threatening to run warrant checks on people speaking in favor of the bill. Fumo, via Twitter, called these tactics “outrageous and reprehensible.”

AB325 comes as a response from community activists and attorneys who note the current system as it stands disproportionately hurts black and brown people and low-income communities.

The bill says people eligible for bail “must be released pending trial with the least restrictive condition.”

While Fumo and attorneys speaking in favor of the legislation said there is no data examining the effects of the bail system in Nevada, specifically Clark County — such as the number of people currently sitting in jail without a conviction because they can’t afford bail — the Prison Policy Initiative estimates of the 612,000 people in local jails across the country, 462,000 have yet to be convicted.

“Every inmate, every person arrested, deserves the presumption of innocence,” Fumo said. “We have thousands of people in custody awaiting trial who can’t get out of jail simply because they are poor. The bail system in this country, especially in this state, disproportionately affects people of color and the poor. It continues to disenfranchise them.”

Robert Langford, an attorney who worked on the legislation and spoke at the hearing, said he’s seen people trapped in jail unable to afford bail for infractions such as jaywalking or broken bicycle light — in Nevada, traffic violations are criminal and not civil.

Fumo said Nevada judges tend to overuse cash bail, so the legislation would ask them to consider releasing people on their own recognizance, implementing non-financial conditions or releasing people with an unsecured appearance bond first. A cash bond would be last and should be based on a person’s financial resources.

People testifying in support of AB325 referenced personal experiences of high bails they couldn’t afford or how the system ushered them into a cycle of poverty.

“The cash bail system criminalizes poverty,” said Leslie Turner, an organizer with PLAN Action’s Mass Liberation Project. “People with money have a different experience with the system.”

Some bail bonds agents said other alternatives, such as house arrest, are more costly. Some even argued the legislature shouldn’t make policy decisions without having Nevada-specific data on bail.

Chuck Callaway, the police director with Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, spoke specifically against a provision in the bill that allows inmates to be unshackled or unrestrained during court appearances.

Several attorneys opposed to the bill, as well as some legislators, said passing bail reform would conflict with Marsy’s Law, the victim’s rights initiative approved by voters in 2018.

Assemblywoman Shea Backus worried that some were using “Marsy’s Law as a shield and a sword” to refute any possible step to make changes to the bail system .

Fumo also pointed to Henry Nicholas, the billionaire backer of Marsy’s Law who was arrested August 2018 in Southern Nevada on drug charges, as an example of how the system disproportionately impacts those with money versus communities who are poor. Nicholas, who had large amounts of narcotics, including methamphetamine, cocaine, marijuana, heroin and pills, was released on his own recognizance and never paid any bail.

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Michael Lyle
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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