DA’s exchange with Booker on justice reform raises eyebrows

By: - August 30, 2019 6:47 am
wait what

Cory Booker addressing Hispanics in Politics in Las Vegas Aug. 28 (Booker campaign Twitter photo).

In a brief exchange between U.S. Sen. Cory Booker and Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson, the prosecutor wanted to know specific steps he could take to reform the local criminal justice system. 

Speaking to Hispanic in Politics Wednesday morning, the Democratic presidential candidate  took many questions, including some from Wolfson. “Criminal justice reform is very important to me because it is very important to the residents of this community,” Wolfson said.

But the interaction didn’t sit well with some in the room, who have been pushing for changes to the local and state criminal justice system in Clark County for years.

Groups such as Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada have fought policies they argue have contributed to filling the state’s jails and prisons. When their input has been overlooked, and suggested policy changes have been ignored, those groups have even campaigned against elected officials responsible, like Wolfson.

“We didn’t just wake up and decide to primary (Wolfson) in 2018 just because we felt like it,” said Laura Martin, the executive director of PLAN, who attended the event. 

Across the country, overhauling district attorney offices have become a priority as reformers realized the role prosecutorial discretion plays in incarceration rates and needlessly locking people up in jails for low-level offenses, like traffic citations, or for crimes associated with addiction and mental health issues.

While expressing a desire to make local changes, Wolfson acknowledged the importance of collaborating with civil rights groups, such as Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, when making changes. “I think in order for me to make some of these changes, I need the input and involvement of these constituencies,” he told the Current.

But Martin said people have pressed the DA’s office for years, and need less “listening sessions” and more time for action. “(Wolfson) has the power to do something,” she added. 

In a meeting in May, Wolfson asked presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris — a former DA herself — about balancing reform with public safety. Now, he wanted to hear from Booker, who has made reform a priority in office as well as on the campaign trail. 

Booker told Wolfson there is “no one magic strategy.“ 

“It has to be a constellation of strategies to keep our community safe,” he said. “We over-incarcerate human beings who often need help. We have a nation that deals with mental health issues and addiction issues as opposed to health care and treatment.”

Wolfson countered that diversion programs require more funding. “Those alternatives to incarceration cost money,” he said. “I want to divert more people from being charged with a crime or going to jail, but I have to divert them to something.”

Booker said America uses “dumb math” when dealing with jail populations, arguing that it is more costly to jail mentally ill people, many of whom are experiencing homelessness, rather than place them in supportive housing with wrap-around services. 

“What we found in Newark one of the best things we could do — and the best way to save taxpayer money — is to empty out our jails of people who were being harmed there and begin to have better pathways for them,” he said. 

In an interview with Nevada Current, Wolfson said his office is committed to seeking alternatives. He referenced two diversion protocols the office is working to implement — an early intervention pre-charge diversion program and a restorative justice program — to contend with people who enter the criminal justice system for larger systemic issues.

“The early intervention pre-charge diversion program is where we assess people’s needs to try to divert them out of the criminal justice system before charging them with a crime,” Wolfson said. “We determine what their needs are and address those needs.”

With more police presence in minority-heavy areas of town, like East Las Vegas, Martin countered that the community is more likely to have interactions with law enforcement, which could lead to more citations or arrests for things like jaywalking or traffic tickets. 

“Instead of a pre-charge program think about pre-interaction,” she added.  

Martin called for changing the way policing is done, requiring more implicit bias training for officers and ending the practice of over-policing black and brown communities in the first place. 

There are larger issues at play, Booker told Wolfson.  

“We can’t talk about over-incarceration without talking about the racial disparities,” he added. “Why are we over-incarcerating black and brown people?”

For the most part, Clark County doesn’t collect sufficient data to track who is ending up in the criminal justice system, why they are there and the disparities faced by black and brown people who are sentenced and incarcerated. 

“I think we fail to gather data in those very important categories,” Wolfson told the Current. “I believe we have certain data, but it’s not something we traditionally gather. We should.”

When pressed further, Wolfson wouldn’t name any specific steps the district attorney’s office is taking to fix that.

Martin said she wasn’t the only person in the room who was confused by the interaction between Wolfson and Booker. 

“As an advocate and organizer, it was frustrating that he smugly asked that question,” Martin added. “I think Booker put it back on (Wolfson). A president or a senator can only do so much on the ground. Wolfson has the power.”

Last month, civil rights groups, attorneys and even Nevada lawmakers blasted the DA’s office for a deal it gave to billionaire Henry Nicholas, who was arrested in August 2018 in Las Vegas after police found nearly 96 grams of methamphetamine, 4.24 grams of heroin, 15.13 grams of cocaine, and 17.1 grams of psilocin, a psychedelic, in the billionaire’s hotel room.

As previously reported by the Current, Nicholas, who is expected to enter a plea deal Sept. 30, will have to participate in two drug counseling sessions a month, perform 250 hours of community service and pay a half-million dollars to a drug treatment facility. According to Forbes, Nicholas’ estimated worth is approximately $4 billion, and he is the world’s 546th richest person.

A poor person arrested for possessing much smaller quantities of drugs, many argue, would not be privileged to such a deal, and would instead likely face at least some time incarcerated. “Now you see public defenders suing to get their clients equal justice,” Martin said.

The cash bail system also plays a role in the number of people who sit in jails — often low-income communities and people of color. The Prison Policy Initiative estimates of the 612,000 people in local jails across the country, 462,000 have yet to be convicted.

“Every night across the country, thousands of people are being detained for a small amount of money and we have an opportunity to end that practice if we win this case,” said Olevia Boykin, a staff attorney with Civil Rights Corp, which works on bail reform and issues where poverty is criminalized. 

That was what happened to Jose Valdez-Jimenez, who sat in jail for several months after being given a $40,000 bail he could not afford. Civil Rights Corp is working with local public defenders on the Valdez-Jimenez case, which the Nevada Supreme Court is scheduled to hear Sept. 4. 

Civil Rights Corps is hoping the Nevada Supreme Court rules this practice is unconstitutional.

According to one amicus brief filed on the case: “In Nevada, nearly 7,000 people are detained in local jails on a given day, and almost 60 percent are awaiting trial.”

“Across the country, courts are saying, ‘you can’t hold someone in jail just because they can’t pay,’” Boykin said.

Prior to this case, PLAN, the ACLU of Nevada and other groups had been fighting to overhaul the bail system in Nevada through legislation. 

For years, they have proposed legislation to overhaul the bail system. In the 2019 legislative session, Assembly Bill 125 came closest to making changes to the bail system and would have mandated custody review hearings within 72 hours and required judges to consider the least restrictive bail conditions — the legislation would not have applied to first degree murder cases.

The Nevada District Attorneys Association, which the Clark County District Attorney’s office is part of, was opposed to the bill.

However, the bill lost support from reformers and died after several changes killed any effectiveness. Lawmakers instead put forth a study bill to look at pretrial release of defendants in criminal cases, which many argued was a better alternative to poorly written legislation.

The Valdez-Jimenez case is just the latest challenge to the state’s use of bail. 

According to the Vera Institute of Justice, many prosecutors are deciding to no longer request cash bail for certain misdemeanors, which means people no longer sit in jail because they can’t afford to pay their bond. 

Criminal justice activists want Wolfson to do the same. 

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

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.