In an attempt to contend with rising prison populations, lawmakers want to expand who is eligible for good time credits, which are awarded to some inmates and could reduce sentences for exhibiting good behavior or completing treatment programs behind bars.
Assembly Bill 125, which was heard Wednesday with an amendment to omit habitual criminals and those convicted of residential burglaries from being considered, has already undergone concessions to gain support from the Nevada District Attorneys Association.
Despite the new language, the association still opposed the legislation during its first hearing.
John Jones, a lobbyist for the association, said while he appreciated the amendment suggested by the group “there are still several other very serious offenses that would now be eligible for front-end credits, including child neglect, elder exploitation, and possession of a firearm by an ex-felon or a domestic abuser.”
Public defender John Piro noted the bill wouldn’t automatically release people from prison, but would allow earned credits to be considered in the parole process.
“They still have to go before the parole board and be evaluated by the parole board for their good behavior before they would even be eligible for release,” he said.
Good time credits are only awarded to inmates serving for lesser offenses who don’t receive any serious infractions while incarcerated, and who enroll in treatment programs or educational opportunities.
It applies to those who are “trying hard to become a better person upon your release and rehabilitate yourself so when you are released you can come back into society and do things better,” Piro added. “Only those people trying to do better and be better will get credit.”
The proposed legislation would open eligibility up to Category B felonies, which range from theft offenses to certain crimes against children or the elderly. The bill would still exclude sex crimes, violent offenses and felony drunk driving.
“The last time good time credits were substantially revised was in 2007 with a bill that doubled the amount of credits an offender can earn,” said Assemblywoman Bea Duran, AB 125’s main sponsor. “The reason the bill was introduced was to reduce prison overcrowding by encouraging offenders to earn credits to reduce their sentence. There is still much to do and this bill attempts to balance public safety, offender rehabilitation and fiscal responsibility.”
Like many states across the country, Nevada’s prison population has increased over the years and was on a trajectory to grow another 9 percent in less than a decade without intervention.
A 2018 analysis from the Crime and Justice Institute found that increase could cost the state an estimated $770 million, which prompted massive legislation to overhaul the criminal justice system.
Assembly Bill 236, passed in the 2019 session, reduced penalties for non-violent theft and property crimes, increased access to diversion programs and reduced the length of times someone is on probation.
The final bill contained multiple if modest criminal justice reforms, watered down recommendations from the Crime and Justice Institute and incorporated amendments from the District Attorney’s association.
The work to reduce Nevada’s prison population continues through bills like AB 125.
The measure is part of an ongoing push in Nevada “to truly dismantle the mass incarceration system that has made us no safer and taken up larger and larger portions of our state budget,” Piro said.
During the 2019 session, Nevada lawmakers pledged to enact meaningful reforms to address mass incarceration and the rising prison population. Calls for change intensified in 2020 following nationwide protests around systemic racism and reforming the justice system.
Return Strong, the ACLU of Nevada and other reform advocates said if lawmakers are serious about their commitment, AB 125 is a step toward that goal.
The legislation recognizes “there is opportunity for growth from all people, by acknowledging that no one should be judged forever by a moment of poor decision-making, and by providing an opportunity for people to demonstrate their own capacity for change and rewarding that work,” said Jodi Hocking, the founder of the inmate advocacy group Return Strong.
Family members of those incarcerated also testified Wednesday to share how loved ones have used their time to take drug treatment courses, earn high school diplomas, and start associate degrees, all in an effort make amends for their crimes and rehabilitate.
Ashley White, whose fiance is incarcerated in the Nevada prison system, said many inside feel no matter how hard they work and change that sometimes it doesn’t make a difference.
“He has done over 90 percent of his sentence … He is working and doing everything he can to get home quicker,” she said. “He has done everything that has been asked of him through programs and classes. He just wants to come home and raise his young children. This bill would give him hope, and sometimes hope can sustain you.”