AG Ford, community organizers highlight criminal justice reform successes, failures

By: - June 10, 2021 6:00 am

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

It took a decade of organizing and five legislative sessions for Nevada to embrace a long-sought criminal justice reform to decriminalize minor traffic tickets such as driving with a broken taillight.

Assembly Bill 116, which converts most minor traffic offenses to civil infractions to prevent jail time, was signed into law Tuesday by Gov. Steve Sisolak. Senate Bill 219, another reform pushed by advocates for years, was also signed into law and ends the practice of suspending people’s driver’s licenses when they can’t afford to pay fines and fees for minor traffic offenses. 

Speaking later that night, Leslie Turner, an organizer with the Mass Liberation Project, said incarcerating people because they can’t afford their fines is the “definition of criminalization of poverty” and finally enacting a law to fix it is the “bare minimum.” 

“Yes, I am glad we were able to pass this bill and it was signed into law,” she said. “I have much love and adoration for the people who worked on it for the past 10 years. But it should not have taken 10 years. This is something that should have been done a long time ago.”

Advancing criminal justice reforms can take time and, to the frustration of organizers and community groups, sometimes take several sessions to pass. 

The 2021 Legislative Session saw numerous proposals to overhaul aspects of the justice system, like abolishing the death penalty and enhancing police accountability. 

Turner, alongside Attorney General Aaron Ford, state Sen. Dallas Harris and Nevada Association of Public Safety Officer lobbyist Rick McCann, offered insight into what passed and failed in 2021 during a panel discussion Tuesday.

Many proposals introduced were inspired by last year’s death of George Floyd and subsequent nationwide protests that called for lawmakers to address systemic racism in institutions like law enforcement. 

As a Black man and the attorney general, Ford said he had a “unique intersection I was able to bring to the conversation” when shaping legislation. 

“I’m born and raised in a neighborhood that experienced police issues from a brutality perspective, from a lack of trust perspective and from a perspective that needs reform if not a complete overhaul,” he said. 

Ford pushed Senate Bill 50, which put limitations on using no-knock warrants, and Assembly Bill 58, which gives the Office of the Attorney General the authority to investigate civil rights complaints within police departments. 

SB 50 was in response to Breonna Taylor, a Black woman shot and killed in Kentucky last March when law enforcement carried out a no-knock warrant. Ford said he didn’t pursue a complete ban on no-knock because he believes there might be situations requiring their use. 

“There may be an example where there is a terrorist who is concocting a bomb in a building,” he said. “You can imagine a circumstance where a no-knock may very well be appropriate. There are now state law restrictions on that use where you’re going to have to prove, you’re going to have to double check, and you’re going to have to ensure it’s being utilized in the best way possible.”

He added that if law enforcement lies about the need for a no-knock warrant, the law also includes repercussions.  

AB 58 was also a result of a series of panels Ford’s office hosted last summer in response to protests. 

“These are investigations into police departments that are alleged to be engaging in unconstitutional or unlawful policing of certain communities,” he said. “I.e., you could be discriminating against Black people or maybe there is a gender-based issue within a particular department we have to address. This state did not have that.”

He added he didn’t have the authority to conduct investigations until May 25, the anniversary of George Floyd’s death, which Sisolak signed both AB 58 and SB 50.

Another reform, which still hasn’t been signed into law, is Senate Bill 212, which requires law enforcement to use de-escalation techniques prior to deadly force. 

The legislation is also a response to protests last summer where law enforcement arrested protestors, journalists and legal observers and used tear gas and rubber bullets on crowds. 

“We’re in a time where in other states Republican legislators are putting forward punishments for people who are protesting,” state Sen. Dallas Harris said. “Here, it was really important we made clear that if (law enforcement) is going to use a kinetic energy projectile like a rubber bullet that there must be good cause and immediate danger and that you don’t aim for vital areas of a person’s body. If you’re going to use chemical agents, you must first declare an unlawful order and give people a route to regress and time and space to comply with that order.” 

Not every proposal to overhaul the justice system survived the session. 

Most notable, Assembly Bill 395, which would have abolished the death penalty, failed. For the first time, the legislation passed out of the Assembly, but then stalled in the Senate. 

The day before a key legislative deadline, Sisolak announced there was “no path forward” on AB 395, which drew anger from many progressive groups. 

When asked Tuesday night about the death penalty bill, Harris said, “One thing I’ve learned from my short time in Nevada politics is that nothing happens quickly.” Harris was appointed to the Senate in 2018. 

“The discussion behind a repeal or a partial repeal didn’t quite get there in the 120 days we had, and I know those conversations will continue as well,” she added. “This issue will be brought back and hopefully we will be able to get it over the finish line soon.”

Assembly Bill 243, which would have created a statewide police reform task force, and Senate Bill 268, which would have required law enforcement to adopt a written policy on de-escalation techniques, also died. 

“No one gets everything they want,” Ford said. “We have to get in the room and talk about issues that are important and we have to try to find a way forward.”

Ford and Turner agreed there is work that needs to be done.

Whatever legislation is proposed, Turner said lawmakers need to bring communities affected by over policing and brutality to the discussion. 

“If we are crafting legislation on police reform, it’s important we are talking to people who have been negatively impacted by the police,” she said. “There seems to be this thing where you’re going to talk to the people who are going to speak nicely to you or agree with you or maybe respectfully disagree with you. But you need to talk to those whose loved ones have been killed by the police.”

Looking forward, Turner said lawmakers also need to invest in communities, food security, jobs and “all the things that keep people clear of the criminal justice system.” 

Similar to calls from protestors last summer, Turner also pointed to the need to “defund the police” — reducing police budgets in order to direct money into communities of color and more appropriate prevention and treatment programs, including mental health and homelessness services.

“(Defund the police) is a controversial statement and I really can’t understand why,” Turner said. “We’ve been defunding systems my entire life. Education has been defunded. Mental health has been defunded. Why is it a controversial statement to say (defund)? Maybe it’s the word we are using. Maybe we need to say ‘reallocate a line item in the budget.’ Basically, we need to stop spending so much money on policing and prisons, the carceral system in general, and start putting money in the front end for communities to be able to have what they need to thrive. It’s very simple.” 

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Michael Lyle
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.