Criminal justice bill watered down but still significant, advocates say

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Senate Judiciary members met for a “behind the bar” committee hearing on AB 236. (Photo courtesy of Battle Born Progress)

An omnibus criminal justice bill with high hopes of reducing recidivism rates and curbing the growing prison population successfully navigated the Nevada Legislature Monday, receiving its final vote mere hours before the closing of the session.

Based off a comprehensive series of state-specific recommendations from the Crime and Justice Institute, AB 236 sought to change a wide array of criminal justice policies, including lowering penalties for non-violent theft and drug crimes, increasing access to diversion programs and specialty court programs, and reducing the length of times an offender is on probation.

The bill faced resistance from district attorneys offices and law enforcement agencies. Proposed amendments from the Clark County District Attorney office were largely incorporated into the final version of the bill.

Although the watering down of bills is typically part of the legislative process, criminal justice reform advocates worried that too big of a departure from the Institute’s recommendations would result in the state losing technical support from that organization.

ACLU Nevada Policy Director Holly Welborn says the final adopted version of the bill should not put that resource in jeopardy, and she praised the bill as providing significant movement in the right direction.

Among the biggest provisions within the bill are changes to theft and burglary statutes. The bill established different levels for such crimes and establishes different levels of punishment to each type. That means breaking into a car is treated less severely than breaking into a commercial business or home.

The Crime and Justice Institute provided data showing that changing the structure of burglary laws does not lead to an increase in lower-level burglary crimes. They also analyzed Nevada’s prison population and found that non-violent drug and property crimes are the top reasons for incarceration.

Nevada’s prison population is growing despite prison populations declining nationwide.

A Sentencing Commission will track outcomes related to the implementation of the bill. When it was first introduced, the bill was projected to save the state approximately $660 million over the next decade. Much of that cost savings is associated with not having to build new prisons to accommodate the growing inmate population.

Assemblyman Steve Yeager says the amendments dropped the projected cost savings down to $540 million over the next decade.

He too is still pleased with the final bill.

“It is nice to see a move away from incarceration,” he said.

In one of the committee hearings on the bill, Yeager acknowledged he had to remove entire sections related to things like pre-trial diversion programs “in the spirit of compromise” despite believing they play an important role.

He added, “I hope we can still have those conversations.”

While the omnibus criminal justice bill survived its watering down, other criminal justice efforts pushed by progressives this legislative session were not as lucky.

AB325 and AB125, two bills related to reducing the state’s reliance on cash bail were watered down to the point where progressive organizations abandoned support. Both bills died.

“Something needs to be done but it needs to be a real step,” said Welborn.

After those bills were declared all but dead, Senate Joint Resolution 11 was introduced. SJR11 appoints an interim committee to study pretrial release of defendants in criminal cases.

Other criminal-justice related bills this session:

SUCCESSFUL

  • Identification cards for prisoners. AB10 cleans up the existing process used by the Nevada Department of Corrections to give ID cards to inmates when they are leaving prison. Supporters believe it will help people released from prison better reestablish their lives. The governor signed the bill on May 23.
  • Recording of interrogations. AB107 requires law enforcement agencies to adopt policies regarding the electronic recording of interrogations. The governor signed the bill on May 25.
  • Banning private prisons. AB183 Nevada gets rid of using private entities for housing inmates. The governor signed the bill on May 28.
  • Restoration of voting rights. AB431 automatically restores voting rights for people who have been released from prison or discharged from parole or probation. The bill is retroactive and will restore voting rights for approximately 77,000 people in Nevada. The governor signed the bill on May 29.
  • Sealing of criminal records. AB192 (Nevada Second Chance Act) allows people to have their criminal records sealed if their offense is no longer illegal under state law. The bill was intended to assist people who have previous marijuana convictions. The governor signed the bill on May 29.
  • Compensation for wrongly accused. AB267 would compensate wrongfully imprisoned: $50,000 per year if they were locked up one to 10 years, $75,000 per year if they were imprisoned 11 to 20 years, and $100,000 per year if they were imprisoned for more than 21 years. The bill also offers pathways to health care, tuition assistance and re-entry services and counseling. The bill is currently on the governor’s desk awaiting a signature.

DEAD

  • Bail reform. AB203 would have allowed people arrested for nonviolent misdemeanors to be released on an unsecured bond — without advance payment — as long as they didn’t have a record of failing to appear.
  • Decriminalizing traffic tickets. AB411 passed the Assembly 36-5 but died before the second bill deadline. Sponsored by Yeager, the bill would have decriminalized traffic tickets by turning them into civil infractions.
  • Abolishing the death penalty. AB149 would have abolished the death penalty, but didn’t even get a committee hearing.
  • Parole for minors. AB424 would have addressed parole eligibility among prisoners who were sentenced as an adult for certain offenses they committed when they were minors. The bill died in committee.
April Corbin
Reporter | April Corbin is an award-winning journalist with a decade of media experience. Most recently she covered local government for Las Vegas Sun. She has also been a staff writer at LEO Weekly, web editor of Las Vegas Weekly and a blogger documenting bike share systems’ efforts to increase ridership in underserved communities. An occasional adjunct journalism professor, April steadfastly rejects the notion that journalism is a worthless major. Amid the Great Recession, she earned a B.A. in journalism from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where she served as editor-in-chief of its student newspaper. She later earned an M.A. in media studies and a graduate certificate in media management from The New School for Public Engagement. April serves as treasurer of the Society of Professional Journalists Las Vegas pro chapter and is an at-large member of the Asian American Journalists Association. A stickler about municipal boundary lines, April enjoys teaching people about unincorporated Clark County. She grew up in Sunrise Manor and currently resides in Paradise. She lives with her boyfriend, his toddler, three mutts and five chickens. In her free time, she enjoys rock climbing, exploring Nevada and defending selfies.
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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