Organizers, lawmakers discuss reforming policies that criminalize poverty

Legislative victory over decriminalizing traffic tickets just the start

By: - December 6, 2021 5:30 am

“When we have the largest prison population of the world, it’s a clear signal that something is wrong.” (Photo by Ronda Churchill)

Now that Nevada has passed legislation to decriminalize traffic tickets and end debt-based license suspensions, lawmakers and organizers are looking at other policies to ensure poverty isn’t criminalized. 

The Fines and Fees Justice Center hosted a panel last week to discuss the recent passage of Assembly Bill 116, which converted traffic offenses like driving with a broken taillight from a criminal infraction to a civil one, and Senate Bill 219, which ends debt-based drivers’ license suspensions. 

Leisa Moseley, the Nevada state director for the Fines and Fees Justice Center, said more reform is needed, not just at the state level but also with city and county ordinances.

“We do need to have the tough conversations about decriminalization and getting things off the books — laws that target homelessness like misusing a park bench,” said Nick Shepack, the Nevada deputy director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center. “I didn’t think you could misuse a park bench. But it is a law.”

Nevada Current previously reported on homeless-related crimes using 2019 City of Las Vegas jail data which showed hundreds of arrests for offenses including possession of a shopping cart and vagrancy. 

The data showed 53 people were booked for “misuse of a bus shelter or bus bench.”

Democratic Assemblywoman Rochelle Nguyen, another panelist and the main sponsor of AB 116, said potential legislation to further decriminalize low-level offenses would take into account how punishment gums up the system while failing to address issues targeted by laws.

She used citing and arresting someone for feeding pigeons, which could come with a $1,000 fine and up to six months in jail, as an example.

“Is criminalizing and putting someone in jail who’s feeding pigeons outside of a park, is that fixing that problem?” she asked. “One, is it a problem? Two, if there is a problem is that fine fixing it? Probably not. And me as a taxpayer, for someone to be in custody anywhere from 72 hours up to six months for that type of charge, those are things I’m constantly looking at.”

There is a growing interest, even across political spectrums, to look at reforming the criminal justice system.

“I believe it’s the civil liberties and civil rights issue of our time when we have the largest prison population of the world, it’s a clear signal that something is wrong,” said Marcos Lopez, the community engagement director for Americans for Prosperity, one of the most high-profile national organizations on the political right over the last several years. “When those populations tend to be low-income and there are racial disparities in its make-up, it’s a clear indication that we have serious systemic problems that need to be addressed.”

Moseley said she had even talked with law enforcement and heard their concerns about enforcing low-level offenses. 

“It takes officers from patrolling the streets for more serious crimes and puts them on things like arresting homeless people,” she said. “Trespassing is a huge one. We are looking at the system and getting data on all the jurisdictions across Nevada to find out what they’re issuing citations for and what they are arresting people for.”

While more states look at passing criminal justice reforms and reducing penalties for low-level offenses, panelists noted there is still pushback.

Anti-reformers contend such legislation reduces public safety. 

But the reforms that are being sought, Shepack countered, makes the community safer.

“One thing we know, the more economically stable a community is, the safer that community becomes,” Shepack said. “If we can ensure our communities maintain the resources and have the ability to get to work and have all the opportunities they can be afforded, those communities are going to be inherently safer on their own and free up law enforcement, because there will always be some crime. What we are doing is in the interest of public safety through an economic justice lens. It’s through a racial justice lens.” 

Decriminalizing traffic tickets was years in the making and took multiple legislative sessions before finally being enacted into law this year. 

While the bill passed in May and part of the legislation went into effect July 1, jurisdictions don’t have to implement key provisions of the bill until January 2023.

Nguyen wanted to give leniency on the implementation date to give courts time to reprogram computers or change how they print out tickets. 

“It would be stupid not to recognize we asked them to change their entire system from a criminal system to a civil system,” she said. “We were also aware we were asking for a pretty significant systematic change to the system in the middle of a pandemic.”

Though she also has met with jurisdictions “reminding them they don’t have to wait until 2023.”

At the end of the session, Moseley and Nguyen began discussing “clean-up language” for the bill that could come in 2023.

“We want to expand the definition of what satisfies community service requirements,” Moseley said. “Or when someone is going through a repayment plan and wants to do or needs to do community services in lieu of monetary sanctions.”

While the legislation moved traffic tickets from criminal to civil, Nguyen is still looking at the implications and if there needs to be a legislative solution. 

“I’m sure there are things I’m going to have to address about collections agencies and the fines and fees collected by private companies,” she said. 

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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.

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