Wolfson touts ‘Smart Reform’ but is it working? Don’t ask him.

By: - June 9, 2022 5:58 am

“We do not have any records of the program or information about that program in our database,” said an official with the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts about a program touted by DA Steve Wolfson. (Screengrab from Committee to Elect Steve Wolfson campaign video.)

District Attorney Steve Wolfson is advertising “smart reform” as a centerpiece of his re-election campaign, including a post-conviction diversion program designed to keep defendants out of prison. 

“By successfully completing this program, offenders are able to receive the help they need, rather than being sent to prison,” Wolfson’s campaign website says of Hope for Second Chances, a program he created utilizing the “nationally recognized Hope for Prisoners” re-entry program as a model. Defendants successfully complete the program by graduating from Hope for Prisoners (HFP). 

But Wolfson’s office says it doesn’t have the data that would determine whether the program works, such as how many have participated and how many successfully completed it. 

“The information you request is not tracked in our case management system,” Assistant DA Christopher Lalli said via email.   

Wolfson has not responded to requests for comment. 

Jon Ponder, founder of HFP, did not respond to requests for data on the program.

Wolfson told the Nevada Independent in 2020 he’s watched HFP “blossom into ‘the best reentry program in the country. I went to Jon and I said, ‘How about this program? …We came up with the fancy name — Hope for Second Chances — and Jon said, ‘Let’s do it.’ So it’s been up and running about a year now and we’re in the process of educating the defense bar and the judges.”

The program had about 30 participants at the time, including “certain violent offenders, roughly between the ages of 18 and 30, deemed likely to succeed in the pre-entry program,” the Independent wrote. 

The state’s Administrative Office of the Courts tracks diversion programs for Nevada courts. 

“We do not have any records of the program or information about that program in our database.  I also checked and confirmed that it is not one of the specialty court programs tracked by the Supreme Court Specialty Court Program Coordinator,” wrote Hans Jessup of the state’s Administrative Office of the Courts. “We get our data directly from the 8th Judicial District Court” – the court that serves Clark County – “so if they are not involved with that program then we would have no information.”

As the Current reported last month, local court officials say they are either unaware of the program or don’t participate. Wolfson has not responded to questions from the Current regarding what court is implementing Hope for Second Chances.

“While I have heard of the program, I have no knowledge of the specifics,” said Robert Langford, a defense attorney Wolfson defeated in the 2018 race for DA. 

“Never heard of it,” said Sarah Hawkins, president of the Nevada Attorneys for Criminal Justice.

Ozzie Fumo, who is challenging Wolfson in the Democratic primary, says he has no knowledge of the program. 

“It does not surprise me that Wolfson can’t say what kind of impact the diversion programs he claims to be so proud of are having on our community,” Fumo said in a statement, adding he’s in favor of diversion programs that get people the help they need. “But we will only know if these programs are working if we have data on who is going through them, and if the DA’s office is transparent about their success or shortcomings.” 

Diversion programs are not new to criminal justice. A Center for Court Innovation report says in 1977 some 200 diversion programs existed in the U.S. 

Some, such as Hope for Second Chances, require defendants to plead guilty. Others divert defendants from the system before they’ve entered a plea. Under the latter model, completion generally results in no charges being filed or dismissal of charges, according to the Center for Court Innovation.

“I have always maintained that pre-charge diversion programs are the most effective,” says Langford. 

While most criminal justice experts agree that pre-plea diversion sentencing can help unclog the system while helping non-violent offenders avoid the lifelong consequences of a conviction, such as housing and job discrimination, some say it can be used unfairly and as a way to negotiate with favored defense attorneys.  

“Most courts are a post-plea model,” Erin Collins, an associate professor at Richmond School of Law, told the American Bar Association Journal in 2019. “The threat of whatever sentence they would have gotten is hanging over their head while they’re in the program. I would be more encouraged by actual true diversionary programs that actually divert people from the system.”

Of the defendants who graduated from all Nevada specialty courts in 2017, an average of 75% did not have a conviction in the subsequent three years.  

Mary Ann Price, spokeswoman for Clark County District Courts, says in 2018 all graduates of Veterans’ Treatment Court did not have a conviction within three years, the highest rate of compliance of all Clark County specialty courts. 

  • 98.2% of Clark County’s Felony DUI Court graduates did not recidivate within three years, 
  • 92.1% of Adult Drug Court graduates did not recidivate within three years.
  • 89.5% of Mental Health Court graduates did not recidivate within three years. 
  • 82.7% of Juvenile Drug Court graduates did not recidivate within three years
  • 62.5% of OPEN Court graduates did not recidivate within three years. OPEN Court offers behavioral modification programs for people between the ages of 18 and 26 who have been incarcerated.  The goal is to reintegrate them into communities while addressing court requirements. 

Las Vegas Municipal Court also has a number of specialty courts, including Women In Need, which assists individuals formerly involved in the sex trade. 

In the last five years, according to City of Las Vegas spokesman Jace Radke, 89 individuals have taken part in that court and 28 have graduated. 

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Dana Gentry
Dana Gentry

Dana Gentry is a native Las Vegan and award-winning investigative journalist. She is a graduate of Bishop Gorman High School and holds a Bachelor's degree in Communications from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.