‘We need answers’: Fed up with Dem inaction, reformers trek to Carson City

Organizers and civil rights groups are angry with Gov. Steve Sisolak for spiking legislation to end the death penalty. (Photo: Michael Lyle)

When reform advocates helped get many lawmakers elected in 2020, they thought they were sending legislators to Carson City to pass bold criminal justice reforms, enact laws that root out systemic racism, and implement the will of the community. 

Speaking at a rally Monday in front of the Nevada Legislature, many were disappointed by much of the legislation they’ve actually gotten. 

“We’ve seen almost every criminal justice bill watered down, turned into a study, or killed,” said Branden Cunningham, an organizer with the Nevada Coalition Against the Death Penalty. 

During nationwide protests last summer, lawmakers and Gov. Steve Sisolak declared racism a public health crisis and promised to reform the justice system, which increased expectations. 

Cunningham thought the declaration meant “we would be treating it like polio and giving it all the available resources.” 

“What we’ve seen is a lack of Democratic leadership,” he added. “This is the people’s house. It doesn’t belong to the lobbyists. It doesn’t belong to corporations. It doesn’t belong to our district attorneys.”

Organizers made the long trek from Southern Nevada to Carson City to meet with legislators and try to get answers on why meaningful bills have died without explanation or even community input. They said they were able to meet with some legislators, but they still haven’t gotten the responses they were hoping for.

Leslie Turner, who heads the Mass Liberation Project, traveled to Carson City to confront lawmakers.

“We need answers, that’s why we’re here,” said Leslie Turner, an organizer with the Mass Liberation Project. “Consistently across the board we haven’t been getting what we want. We haven’t been getting what we’ve asked for. There has been limited engagement virtually. That’s why we showed up today. Enough is enough. You need to explain to our face what’s going on. You need to hear from us in person. These things can’t stand.”

Carson City’s distance from Southern Nevada, where roughly three-fourths of the state’s population resides, has always made it a challenge for residents, most of whom are people of color, from engaging face-to-face with lawmakers during legislative sessions. 

This year the pandemic has relegated the public to virtual participation, making the process even more vexed. 

Monday was the first day the legislative building opened with increased capacity limits. 

“We are up here to interrupt business as usual,” said Nathaniel Phillipps, an organizer with the Mass Liberation Project. “We came up here to put our legislators on notice that they have to meet us in person, in the flesh, and not through the safety of a zoom screen.”

‘A very undemocratic decision’

The day-long efforts started in the morning with chants and speeches from organizers and ended with a vigil recognizing failed efforts to abolish the death penalty.

Since the start of the session, civil rights groups and organizers were concerned proposals, many which started out modest, would be watered down or killed.  

Their fears were realized when Assembly Bill 395, which would have abolished the death penalty, was killed behind doors last week. Sisolak sent out a statement saying there was “no path forward.”

“It’s a very undemocratic decision the governor made. He made the decision for the Legislature and spoke for the Legislature by announcing there was no path forward,” Nancy Hart, the president of the Nevada Coalition Against the Death Penalty, said during the vigil Monday.

Nancy Hart, the president of Nevada Coalition Against the Death Penalty, speaks at a vigil in front of the Nevada Legislature. (Photo: Michael Lyle)

The bill, which was opposed by district attorneys including Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson, passed the Assembly on April 13 on a party line vote.

Melanie Scheible, a prosecutor in Wolfson’s office who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, declined to give the bill a hearing

“You can’t tell me your boss gives a whole presentation and you’re going to go against him when you have to return to that office in three weeks,” Turner said. 

Cunningham said it was “insulting” to say the bill couldn’t find enough consensus. 

“What we saw was backroom politics that should be dead in the modern era,” he said. 

In an interview Thursday following Sisolak’s statement, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro, another prosecutor in Wolfson’s office, said lawmakers are committed “to making sure the justice system is fair” and argued they’ve done that the last few sessions.

“We’ve done a lot of work in the state of Nevada, and I would encourage anyone who thinks we’re not doing enough to take a look at other states and ask whether or not we are,” Cannizzaro said. “I know when I’ve talked to colleagues in other states they are amazed we are able to make such progress. You’re seeing that again this session. We have bills that are addressing our police use of force to hold them accountable to people who know they can have faith and trust in police officers. We are addressing bail reform. We’ve had a number of bills that have moved because we know that’s a concern. People shouldn’t be in jail just because they have an inability to pay.”

But activists Monday were unimpressed. 

‘We will see you in court’

Turner said a number of bills addressing police use of force and accountability were also watered down, and did little to help those impacted most by over-policing.

“We are either conceding to police unions, Metro lobbyists or the DA’s association,” she said. “Why does the community have to always be the ones to concede?” 

After failing to enact reforms to the cash bail system for multiple legislative sessions, lawmakers introduced several proposals

The legislation was motivated in part by a 2020 Nevada Supreme Court ruling, the Valdez-Jimenez decision, which determined bail could only be set when it is necessary to protect the community or to ensure a person returns to court. 

The decision required prosecutors to prove by “clear and convincing evidence” the condition of bail being considered is the least restrictive. 

Legislation seeking to codify the ruling into law faced stiff opposition from district attorneys and law enforcement.

While the majority of the bail reform bills are still alive, civil rights groups and attorneys say the carve outs and amendments have lessened their impact. 

A late amendment to Senate Bill 369, which would have codified the “clear and convincing evidence” component of the ruling, excludes people if they “used a firearm in committing the act for which” they were arrested.

Mass Liberation, the ACLU of Nevada and public defenders were among those opposed to the amended version of the legislation. 

John Piro, a Clark County public defender, called it a major step backward. 

Holly Welborn, the policy director of the ACLU of Nevada, said during Monday’s rally the amendments do the opposite of what the Supreme Court ruling was trying to accomplish, which might prompt lawsuits.

“Do what that (Supreme Court) decision says,” she said. “Don’t add amendments to the bill that are going to make it do the opposite of what it’s trying to achieve or we will sue. That is a guarantee. If (the bill) does not honor that Supreme Court case, we will see you in court.”

Assembly Bill 424 originally mandated a person be brought back to a court within 24 hours for a bail hearing, but an amendment increased the timeframe to 48 hours as a concession to judges in rural counties.  

“People can lose a lot in 48 hours,” Turner said. 

‘Put your money where your mouth is’

Another example of Democrats thwarting reform, Turner said, was Senate Bill 50, introduced by Attorney General Aaron Ford, to regulate the use of no-knock warrants. The bill was inspired by Breonna Taylor, a Black woman shot and killed in Kentucky last March when law enforcement carried out a no-knock warrant. 

“That wasn’t a demand that came out of the community,” she said. “No-knock warrants aren’t a profound issue we have had in Nevada. But if you want to ban no knock warrants, then ban no-knock warrants.”

The legislation, though, doesn’t get rid of law enforcement’s ability to use no-knock warrants, it only limits them to cases where a person is considered a “imminent threat to public safety.”  

“Either do it, or don’t do it,” Turner said.

Organizers hold a lobby day in Carson City to speak out about failed bills addressing criminal justice reforms. (Photo: Michael Lyle)

Wellborn said other modest reforms that were proposed, though still alive, are also at risk of getting whittled down.

“We can’t allow them to do that and pretend it’s a win,” Welborn said.

Assembly Bill 151, which would have eliminated the practice of suspending licenses for unpaid minor traffic fines and fees, hasn’t received a single vote. 

Though the bill, which hasn’t received a hearing since March 12, is declared exempt from deadlines, fiscal notes make organizers believe the legislation will die. 

“We need to know why that bill died,” Turner asked Monday. “We need an explanation. People in our community have licenses suspended right now and need them reinstated. Why was that bill taken off the table?

It’s not just criminal justice reforms organizers said have stalled. 

“Police unions. Apartment Associations. Casinos. Mining,” Turner said. “All of these entities have more power and influence in this building than the people who have to live out these issues on a daily basis.”

Turner added that legislators are supposed to be “a conduit of what the people want.” 

“That’s what I thought that position was for,” she said. “We elected you and so now you represent what we want as constituents. That’s not what’s happening.”

Monique Normand, a licensed social worker and board member for the Nevada Coalition Against the Death Penalty who spoke during Monday’s vigil, is disappointed that Democrats, who have a trifecta with two houses of the Legislature and the governorship, “haven’t lived up to their promises.”

“Put your money where your mouth is. If this is something you care about, then why not do something about it,” she said. “We have to hold their feet to the fire. We have to start doing things differently.”

Normand said she would consider withholding her vote in 2022 altogether.

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.