The liberated future Nevada needs now

The political imagination of our state does not reflect the severity of oppression under which we live.
The political imagination of our state does not reflect the severity of oppression under which we live. (Photo: Daniel Clark)

Mass incarceration is a fundamental paradigm of the contemporary United States that targets poor and Black people in a process of dehumanization and subjugation. Nevada jails people at a higher degree than most other states and is a planetary leader of incarceration, at a rate higher than the U.S. as a whole; therefore, intentional — and radical — political enterprises are needed to counteract this inhumanity. 

Hundreds of Nevadans are championing the “Liberated Future” bills that make imperative policy changes to uplift communities targeted for marginalization and oppression. They cannot afford another legislative session without sweeping changes and, dare we say it, transformation. The package of bills includes:

  • AB151, the Driving for Opportunity Act to prevent license suspensions for the inability to pay fines;
  • AB230 limiting “direct files,” the practice of trying juveniles in adult court;
  • AB116 decriminalizing traffic violations (which has been introduced for several sessions);
  • SB254, the “Fair Chance Housing” act; several bills that finally end cash bail and wealth-based detention;
  • The Nevada for Working Families act preventing police collaboration with ICE. 

They point to a more just future.

It is perplexing to see how the people responsible for designing public policy for all Nevadans are consistently slow to, or fail to, enact the necessary shifts to monumentally transform a culture of punitive punishment, marginalization of the poor, and repressive economic insecurity.

There is ongoing class warfare against the majority poor and working people in our state that promotes a life of immiseration for so many of us. The status quo is an attack on vulnerable communities which means it must be countered by equal force. Abolitionism, the social movement that has surged in popular consciousness and popularity from the uprisings of 2020, calls us to question how current systems — including, but far beyond policing and prisons — do not serve us, and reject the notion of “that’s just how it is.” When we operate in that manner we willfully ignore the history of how things came to be.

Forty-three percent of Nevadans are poor or low-income and Nevada has the fourth highest measure of income inequality in the nation; this means the top-earning individuals (the “1%”) hoard most of the wealth that is produced by everybody else. Black Nevadans are four times as likely to be jailed as white residents, which is largely a product of where police forces are directed to arrest people and not actual instances of so-called “crime.” Often, crime is a symptom of a failed state.

There is a continuous cycle of anti-black, extractive, and immoral governance in the Silver State. Fifty-seven percent of people incarcerated in Nevada are people of color, indicating a justice system that perpetuates itself through racism: it should be called out as racist public policy. For example, 12 percent of the population of Las Vegas is Black yet are 43 percent of the residents issued warrants (to be arrested and jailed) for traffic tickets — mostly for the inability to pay. Police decide to target the poorest areas of the city for warrants, not Summerlin, where there are less Black people to prey upon. Assembly Bill 116 will upend this discriminatory practice and remove traffic citations from the criminal court system where it devastates individuals and families.

These issues are molded by the hands of legislators, many of whom are not impacted by the votes they cast. The legislative session is when directly impacted voices should be listened to the most, yet rarely are, as evidenced by the dead of night marathon of public testimony and voting we saw in last summer’s special session. The injustices are not new and they are maintained by both parties. And the irony is not lost on us that many of the people elected to the Legislature are Black themselves and come from “our community.” This disastrous state of affairs necessitates that residents challenge representatives by demanding a liberated future. 

In August Gov. Steve Sisolak and the Legislature denounced racism as a public health emergency without a plan to actually root out systemic racism. If racism is a “public health issue” we should eliminate drivers of health inequalities. Housing is one of the most important social determinants of health. Yet, the apartment rental industry can legally discriminate against people with a felony record and deny them what is a basic necessity for a healthy life. The “Fair Chance Act” (Senate Bill 254) would prohibit this discrimination and allow people to secure housing like any other dignified person. It makes absolutely no sense, besides disdain and hate, to punish by blocking stable housing and pushing folks to acts of desperation (potentially more crime) or homelessness. To be clear, this does not make housing fair: there is no fairness in a system based on the ability to pay and the proclivities of the private market under capitalism.

The political imagination of our state does not reflect the severity of oppression under which we live. We are exasperated year after year when legislators deliver the bare minimum and then praise themselves for doing so little. It was not an accident that Covid-19 impacted Nevada’s economy the most; rather, it is the consequence of decades of lackluster public policy that does not foster resilience but instead hollows out the public good to prop up corporations, vulture entrepreneurs, and casino moguls. These bills are long overdue as is our state’s reckoning of the entrenched poverty and hardship tolerated here. 

This session we proclaim liberation. We proclaim a Nevada where people are not criminalized for their best attempt at living under violent and inequitable conditions. “Liberated Future” bills like AB116 and SB317 are among a suite of measures the Mass Liberation Project is spearheading that will bring us towards a Nevada where more people can begin to thrive. 

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Mass Liberation is a national network dedicated to abolish the criminal legal system as we know it, free people and get them home, and transform safety and community well-being. In Nevada we have done this by challenging the incumbent Clark County District Attorney, originating and operating the Vegas Freedom Fund to post bail and give cash assistance to justice-involved community members, organizing participatory legal support for defendants, electing a slate of judges to the bench that come from impacted communities, and more.

Nathaniel Phillipps
Nathaniel Phillipps is a a graduate of the Las Vegas Academy and UNLV and currently a fellow within the Healing Justice Program of the American Friends Service Committee.
Courtney Jones
Courtney Jones is a Las Vegas local and 2020 UNLV Human Services graduate, who works for Mass Liberation as a Campaign Justice Organizer.