State panel rejects proposals to even consider reducing inmate population

‘We’re the ones who put those people in prison and I’m not interested in letting them out,’ judge says

prison
(Nevada Department of Corrections Facebook photo.)

In three separate attempts during Wednesday’s Nevada Sentencing Commission meeting, members proposed sending recommendations and letters to state officials that would urge them, at the very least, to discuss and potentially consider how to responsibly reduce its prison population during the health crisis. 

Each proposal was voted down. 

“On behalf of the judiciary, we’re the ones who put those people in prison and I’m not interested in letting them out without a reason or an appropriate approach,” said Washoe District Court Judge and commission member Scott Freeman, after the first recommendation was proposed. 

The Nevada Sentencing Commission convened for the second time in April to deliberate on ways the state treats its incarcerated populations amid the health crisis caused by COVID-19. 

The first case of the virus in Nevada was reported in March and Gov. Steve Sisolak issued a state of emergency March 12. 

Since then criminal justice advocates, public defenders, defense lawyers and civil rights groups have called on the state to show a sense of urgency in coming up with a plan for its incarcerated population that includes reducing the number of inmates behind bars. 

Wednesday’s meeting didn’t yield any changes. 

Commission members first debated whether or not to recommend that “the pardons board, the governor and the director of NDOC work together to relax the statutes within their authority toward a responsible release to depopulate the institution.”

On April 13, the commission narrowly voted to ask the governor to convene an emergency meeting of the pardons board. Sisolak hasn’t acted nor has he answered directly whether he will convene the pardons board.

The latest proposal also urged, but didn’t limit, Sisolak and the pardons board to refer to guidelines from the Centers for Disease for Control and Prevention and the “SAFER” Plan, a list of recommendations compiled by national criminologists, psychologists, criminal justice reform advocates and formerly incarcerated people that was discussed at the previous meeting.

“I feel like we’ve kind of gone down a wormhole where people are confusing criminal justice reform with dealing with an immediate, fatal global health pandemic,” said Assemblywoman Rochelle Nguyen, who sits on the commission. “I would just like to bring it back because I think there is some urgency in this as we can see with the sheer number of deaths. I think there is a place on this commission to discuss overall criminal justice reform. But I see this motion as a starting place for the people who are professionals and dealing with this thing to come up with a responsible plan. Consider, we’re not even telling them to act, we are telling them to consider.”   

The vote failed 10 to 7, with commission chair state Supreme Court Justice James Hardesty and Christine Jones Brady from the Nevada Attorney General’s office abstaining. 

The second motion, put forward by Clark County Public Defender Darrin Imlay, was to send a letter to the governor to convene the board of pardons asking them to: 

  • Contemplate releasing those who’ve been granted parole but have not been released.
  • Releasing vulnerable inmates and those with underlying health conditions, according to CDC recommendations.

Considerations would be made for those with re-entry plans and inmates who aren’t serving sentencing for “crimes against persons.”

The motion failed 10 to 7. 

The commission unanimously voted in favor of recommending the state consider implementing a section of a criminal justice overhaul bill — legislation that passed in 2019 that made changes to criminal justice policies, state law, re-entry practices and probation — earlier than its July 1 effective date. 

The provision of the bill would consider the early release of nonviolent inmates older than 65 who have served the majority of their sentence. 

It applies to six inmates. 

Even attempts to beef up the final motion failed. 

John Arrascada, a public defender in Reno, suggested instead of implementing one component of the criminal justice bill a few months early, the commission should urge Sisolak to consider implementing other portions of the law if it aids in reducing the population size. 

The proposal failed 7 to 12, this time Hardesty and Jones Brady joining the no vote. 

During Wednesday’s meeting, commission members argued there is no need for urgency because there are no inmates who’ve test positive for COVID-19. Some said that correction director Charles Daniels acted early enough to reduce any potential spread by ending visitations and instrumenting lockdowns. 

Daniels has previously given conflicting information to the commission. 

At the April 13 meeting, Daniels told the commission zero inmates had been tested for COVID-19. He officially corrected the record Wednesday saying 39 of the roughly 12,000 inmates in the prison population have been tested. 

The department’s medical officer acknowledged later in the meeting that nine of those tests were administered to pregnant inmates at Florence McClure Women’s Correctional Center as a precaution.

“Of those 39 who have been tested, were they self reported or has NDOC done any systematic screening of inmates like checking temperatures or some other way to screen the populations in these facilities or is it strictly based on self-reporting,” asked commission member Tod Story, executive director of the ACLU of Nevada.

The medical director said inmates self report any ailments, but prison medical staff also look for any potential symptoms related to COVID-19 prior to testing. Only one prison has implemented temperature checks on a daily basis for the entire facility.

Story called for the practice to be implemented statewide. 

“There have been a number of institutions that have started to test incarcerated people who are asymptomatic that are finding very high rates of inmates testing positive,” added Dr. Emily Salisbury, a criminologist and UNLV professor who is part of the commission. “That includes one prison in North Carolina. After they started massive testing in one of their facilities, 96 percent of those who tested positive were asymptomatic.”

Daniels, along with some of the commission members, reiterated during the meeting that releasing inmates when there is a lack of housing or resources for them would be more disastrous than keeping them inside and could contribute to higher recidivism rates. 

At the times he has weighed in on the issue, Sisolak has also cited concerns about lack of job opportunities and places to live going into any consideration he makes. However, he still hasn’t acted. 

The Nevada Sentencing Commission isn’t meeting again until June 29. 

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.