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Too Many In Prison? State Criminal Code Might Change

Nevada’s prison population remains above the national average, so some are saying it’s time to change the way people convicted of a crime are prosecuted and sentenced.

Assembly Bill 236 proposes a sweeping overhaul in Nevada’s criminal sentencing system. 

The bill was created from recommendations made by the Criminal Justice Institute after it did extensive research into the state's justice system. Those recommendations were made to an advisory committee, which took all 25 recommendations and crafted them into the bill draft.

While some are praising it as much needed criminal reform, others fear that lawmakers are sacrificing the safety of Nevadans just to reduce the prison population. 

“It’s been the position of the prosecutors and law enforcement agencies throughout the state that we can never sacrifice public safety for money,” Douglas County District Attorney Mark Jackson told KNPR's State of Nevada.

Jackson has been leading the opposition to the reform bill. For one thing, Jackson and other opponents are unhappy the commission took all of the institute's suggestions and put them in the bill.

He also said the bill goes "way too far" in reforming the justice system. 

Jackson pointed to the changes the bill would make to drug possession levels. He said it would increase the amount of heroin someone has to have in his or her possession to be charged with a felony count of trafficking.

“Their sweeping changes with this would invite more drug trafficking into our state," he said.

Jackson said when California made similar changes to its laws people were seen injecting heroin in the open in tourist areas in San Francisco and Nevada could see the same thing on the Las Vegas Strip - if reforms were made here. 

“There’s no doubt that we need to take a serious look at our drug trafficking; however, there is no scientific data associated with new levels that we’re just throwing out there in this bill," Jackson said.

A proponent of the bill disagreed with the idea it will put public safety at risk.

Amy Rose is with ACLU of Southern Nevada and sat on the advisory group that helped craft the bill, along with Jackson.

She said the Criminal Justice Institute's research and suggestions pointed out some "pretty problematic aspects" of criminal justice in Nevada.

For instance, the state's burglary statute is very broad and doesn't distinguish between a home, a car or a warehouse. Rose said that kind of wide-net approach ensnares people without looking at the severity of the crime.

“That was one of the things that was really concerning that they pointed out was how many people were going to prison simply for non-violent property crimes essentially,” she said.

She said sending people convicted of non-violent, low-level crimes to prison actually makes the community less safe because it puts them in contact with violent criminals, where they learn more criminal behavior.

“That’s a real problem. You’re taking them away from their jobs and their families, putting them in a much worse situation,” she said.

The other part of the reforms would address what happens to people when they get let out of prison. Rose said a majority of people who get sent back to prison for violation of their parole or probation do so within six months of being let out.

She argues providing services and resources up front will stop them from going back to prison and make the community safer in the long run.

“So, if we want to make sure our community is safe then we as a state need to ensure that people are prepared to come back and to be members of our community,” she said.

Proponents of the law say it could save $650 million over 10 years, which can be reinvested into drug treatment programs, mental health services and addressing recidivism.

“This isn’t about just not sending people to prison," Rose said, "This isn’t about just lowering the cost for the state of sending people to prison. It’s about using the resources we have in a different way”

Jackson admits changes could be made to some of the state's criminal justice system, including the burglary statues which he says are too broad and he agreed that Nevada has "failed with respect to our mental health treatment." 

But he and all 17 district attorneys in the state don't believe this bill is the way to do it.

Amy Rose, attorney, ACLU of Nevada; Mark Jackson, Douglas County district attorney


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Joe Schoenmann joined Nevada Public Radio in 2014. He works with a talented team of producers at State of Nevada who explore the casino industry, sports, politics, public health and everything in between.