The fairness of the cash bail system in Clark County was scrutinized in arguments before the Nevada Supreme Court Wednesday.
Reviewing the cases of defendants from Southern Nevada, the Clark County Public Defender’s Office and the Clark County District Attorney’s Office sparred over whether or not bail has been properly administered.
Jose Valdez-Jimenez, one of the defendants, was accused of stealing thousands of dollars worth of merchandise and was assigned a $40,000 bail he couldn’t afford — he later took a plea deal and is currently serving his sentence.
“What we’re saying today is when prosecutors go to court, as they do every day in Clark County, and only ask for a money bail amount without specifically saying if they are truly seeking detention or some kind of conditioned release, and when a judge does not make a finding whether detention is actually necessary and instead fixes a money bail amount that may or may not be beyond the reach of a defendant, that money bail is unlawful when it results in the detention of individuals too poor to secure their freedom,” Nancy Lemke with the Clark County public defender’s office. “This is what happens in Clark County every day.”
If a wealthy person with the same charges was able to afford the bail, Lemke argued, they would be released.
Steven Owens, speaking for the District Attorney’s office, disagreed.
“I think that’s a fallacy to assume the bail would be set the same,” he said.
Financial constraints of defendants, he added, are taken into consideration. “The judge looked at the financial ability but also looked at if he is a danger to the community, or his history of failing to appear.”
In the end, he said community safety takes precedence.
Owens also said that under the Constitution, excessive bail amounts don’t necessarily mean amounts people can’t afford.
In addition to her concerns about how bail amounts are set, Lemke said prosecutors should be required to explain their intent — for instance, if they are seeking a high bail because they don’t want a person to be released from jail.
“You have a prosecutor not walking into the court and asking for detention, but asking for a money bail amount,” Lemke said. “With the defendant and the defense not there, we don’t know if that money bail amount is going to operate as a detention order or a release condition.”
“We’re not saying you can’t use money bail,” Lemke said. However, if the prosecutor is going to use bail as a way to keep a person detained, she added, it should be the prosecutor who is burdened to say so.
Valdez-Jimenez’s case isn’t the only example brought up to highlight disparities in the bail system, which is why groups like Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada and the ACLU of Nevada have been trying to overhaul the state’s bail system. PLAN Action campaigned to unseat current Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson while both groups lobbied for bail reforms at the Legislature.
While lawmakers didn’t pass any bail reforms — only a study bill — national groups like Civil Rights Corp, which is assisting the public defenders’ office in the Supreme Court Case, think a court decision could drastically alter Nevada’s bail system.
The court didn’t give any indication when it would rule.