What’s more important, individual liberty or community safety?
Variations of that question have surfaced again and again during any efforts to reform Nevada’s bail system.
Those advocating a drastic overhaul of the bail system say the focus should be on the people who are hurt, citing how people of color and low-income communities are disproportionately kept locked up — despite not being convicted of a crime — because of unfair bail amounts.
Those opposed to any, and all, reform say the bail system works and keeps dangerous people from being released.
“Liberty and the interest of the individual should be given equal if not more weight than the government’s interest of balancing safety against liberty,” said Democratic Assemblywoman Dina Neal.
However, Assembly Bill 125, brought by Neal, has many concerned that lawmakers are taking insufficient steps to overhaul the bail system. The legislation, heard Thursday in the Assembly Judiciary Committee, gives judges more leeway to go outside the standardized bail schedule and take into consideration more factors to determine if a person can be released on their own recognizance.
The bill’s very existence has those pushing for bail reform worried the new legislation would hurt Assembly Bill 325, a more substantial effort that would require judges to use the least restrictive bail conditions before cash bail and mandate a bail hearing be conducted within 48 hours of arrest.
Introduced by Democratic Assemblyman Ozzie Fumo, there hasn’t been any movement on AB325 since it was heard in March, but the legislation was exempted from the April 12 deadline so it’s still alive.
During Thursday’s hearing, Assembly Judiciary Chair Steve Yeager stressed AB325 is still being worked on. “Despite the reading of the tea leaves, AB325 is not dead,” he said. “For the people who think all the work we’ve done was all for nothing, you’re incorrect.”
Fumo told Nevada Current the two bills will be blended together, and wasn’t sure what the final legislation would say.
In the growing trend of criminal justice reform, many states have begun to look at their bail process. New Jersey overhauled its system in 2017 while California ended its use of cash bail.
The Prison Policy Initiative estimates about 646,000 people are in local jails across the country and nearly 70 percent on pretrial and haven’t been convicted of a crime.
Similarly in Southern Nevada, 67 percent of the Clark County Detention Center inmates in 2017 were there pretrial — not convicted — according to the 2017 Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Detention Services Division report. That amounts to about 2,800 people in CCDC on any given day.
The bail system hasn’t been meaningfully reformed in Nevada since the 1980s, Neal said during her presentation.
More recently, Nevadans have seen a bipartisan push with groups ranging from the ACLU of Nevada and the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada to Americans for Prosperity calling for change.
Under Neal’s legislation, judges couldn’t rely on a standardized bail amounts. Right now, Neal said, poor people, often from communities of color, are left sitting in jail because they can’t afford to get out. “(Bail schedules are) a predetermined wealth scheme that sets a price for freedom,” she said. “It discriminates against the poor.”
Citing the history of bail reform, both nationwide and in the state, Neal defended AB125, which is a byproduct of her failed 2017 legislation that would have made changes to the bail system. “I was the lone ranger and took a lot of heat for my first and second version of the bill,” she said.
The final version of that bill, she said, was a compromise to ensure the legislation could pass both Democratic-controlled houses. “From the discussions I was having in this building, (the legislation) needed to have more weight on community safety than individual liberty,” Neal said.
She added that legislation needed to be more moderate, if not conservative, to garner enough votes. However, all compromises were in vain since former Gov. Brian Sandoval ultimately vetoed the bill.
Two years, a Democratic majority, and a Democratic governor later, Neal is still unsure if anything other than compromise would make it out of the Nevada Legislature, which is why the 2017 bill was resurrected. Gov. Steve Sisolak has previously said he would be “willing to look at whatever the Legislature brings forward” to reform the bail system.
“I understand the passion and hope around this issue and that people don’t think this bill goes far enough,” Neal said.
One bail reform bill, Assembly Bill 203, has already died this session without a hearing by the April 12 deadline. Sponsored by Assemblyman Edgar Flores, who is also a cosponsor of AB125, the legislation would have allowed for those arrested for nonviolent misdemeanors to be released on an unsecured bond, meaning without advance payment, as long as the person wasn’t arrested while on bail or didn’t have a record of failing to appear.
Despite AB125’s modest changes to the bail system, bail bond agents still opposed the bill and said reforms would come at the cost of taxpayers and community safety. Some even argued this was an “attack on the entire industry.”
Faith Organizing Alliance, a faith-based coalition that has been rallying for changes to the bail system, was also opposed to the bill. “The current bail system is broken and we are in need of more reform,” said Ralph Williamson, a pastor and executive director for the group
The bulk of those testifying were in neutral and torn between the desire to support anything that would make changes to the bail system and the concern the legislation wouldn’t go far enough.
Neal didn’t close the door on making adjustments or introducing amendments — she already took out a provision that focused on using a pretrial risk assessment tool for consideration.
Whatever the legislature does, she added, this session poses a “unique opportunity to move the conversation in a historic way to provide some shift on bail reform.”