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Criminal Justice Reform Efforts Continue During Legislative Session


Lawmakers are almost done with the first month of the legislative session – and they only have until May 31 to finish the people’s business.

Aside from the looming fight over the budget, some lawmakers are pushing for more criminal justice reform

This is continuing the work that started during the special session last summer that was focused on criminal justice reform and police reform in response to the Black Lives Matter movement that emerged after the killing of George Floyd.

In the summer, lawmakers passed a chokehold ban and some other reforms around policing and transparency.

At the end of that special session, Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson said the conversation wasn’t over and there would be more criminal justice reform during the regular legislative session.

One of the bills that have already been introduced is Assembly Bill  116. It was introduced by Assemblywoman Rochelle Nguyen, and it would decriminalize traffic violations.

This would remove the threat of jail for unpaid traffic violations. These are minor violations, like a broken tail light or speeding tickets.

Essentially, it would turn those from criminal matters into civil infractions instead.

Assemblywoman Nguyen said it is an equity issue too because research shows that traffic violations disproportionately affect low-income people and communities of color.

She said that the change in the law isn’t going to impact someone who has a good job and stable income because when most of those people get a speeding ticket they’ll pay it.

It is different if you don’t have the means to pay the ticket.

If I was to get a $100 ticket, I could probably just pay that ticket,” Nguyen said, “But if someone that was less fortunate economically than myself got a $100 ticket, it might make the difference between whether or not they’re eating, especially in this economic climate, with COVID – or whether or not they’re going to jail now. And that really shouldn’t ever be an option.”

The bill does not apply to more serious violations like DUI or other violations that put safety at risk.

A bill similar to this one was introduced in 2019, but it was not passed.

Nguyen said she is using that bill as a starting point, but it is early in the legislative process, so changes are expected.

Courts make a lot of money from fees from traffic tickets, and there is a large emphasis this legislative session on bills that are revenue neutral, meaning they won’t cost the state any money because of the massive budget problems the state still faces.

AB 116 would incur some upfront costs, even if they’re just administrative.

However, Assemblywoman Nguyen said that even if there are upfront costs the state is ultimately going to save money long term, because when you’ve got a criminalize structure for traffic violations, you have a lot of manhours going into prosecuting those, especially if it’s a situation where someone doesn’t have the money to pay and he or she doesn’t show up the court date, then he or she gets a bench warrant.

That means law enforcement has to keep an eye out for this person. If they find the person, he or she gets incarcerated after the arrest. Those costs really add up.

The argument here is: this will save in long term, as well as being a more equitable way to deal with traffic violations.

So far, there hasn’t been significant pushback on the idea.

It is getting some support from the Clark County District Attorney’s office. The DA’s are saying they support this because they have to spend a lot of time on these minor issues, going to court over something like an unpaid speeding ticket and that takes attention away from more serious crime.

Another bill that has been introduced is Senate Bill 50. It is coming from Attorney General Aaron Ford’s office.

It would make it harder for police to get ‘no-knock’ warrants. Those warrants have gotten a lot of attention lately because that’s the kind of warrant that led to Breonna Taylor’s in Louisville, Kentucky in March of 2020.

What is interesting about the bill is that it is coming from the AG’s Office which really suggests that law enforcement and organizations responsible for upholding the law are really taking a deep look at structural conditions that exist and saying: How can we make these work better, and how can we make this a situation where we’re putting fewer people at risk.

There is another bill that has been casually called “Karen’s Law.” It is Assembly Bill 57.

This is essentially a reform that would allow someone to sue for damages if someone else calls the cops on them based on their race or religion or gender identity in order to harass them or have them removed from somewhere where they would otherwise be allowed to be without any problem.

“Karen’s Law” is a reference to the memes of karens who call police unnecessarily on Black people and other people of color in the United States. Essentially, this would be a way to provide some consequences for folks who misuse the police in those types of situations.

State Senator Dallas Harris is a co-sponsor of that bill. She is also planning to introduce her own bill to require data collection for traffic stops.

It is demographic data, and the reason she wants it collected is so that the state can start taking a look at who is impacted by traffic stops.

In other states, they do collect this data. It makes it easier for advocates and others that oversee law enforcement to see whether these stops are being done equitably.

There has been a lot of conversation about racial profiling by law enforcement officers. There has also been conversations about the disproportionate impact of law enforcement.

Many in the activist community say that low-income communities are ‘over policed,' meaning very heavy police presence in the area, and just by the fact you have more police there, they are going to be stopping more people for minor crimes.

If the bill gets passed, it will be an opportunity for Nevada to get a sense of who is being stopped, whether that’s proportionate to their share in the population and potentially open the door for reforms.

Harris understands that this is likely a heavy lift in this legislative session.

“You gotta make sure everybody’s at the table,” she said, “As long as everybody’s voice is heard, things go a bit smoother that way. But these are tough issues, so I can’t expect it to be easy. Many, many conversations ahead of us.”

Also on the legislative agenda, Assembly Bill 110 would update the definition of lobbyist. Currently, to be considered a lobbyist a person must be physically in the building but with coronavirus restrictions that hasn’t been possible.

AB 110 would make it so they don’t have to be in-person. That will mean the Legislative Counsel Bureau will publish its list of lobbyists, which they haven’t been able to do yet.

Another item is Assembly Bill 19. It would update homeschooling curricula to include “civics” instead of “government.” There are some in the homeschooling community who don’t like it. Lawmakers say civics includes U.S. government, but it is just a broader term.


Bert Johnson, legislative reporter, KNPR

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Bert is a reporter and producer based in Reno, where he covers the state legislature and stories that resonate across Nevada. He began his career in journalism after studying abroad during the summer of 2011 in Egypt, during the Arab Spring. Before he joined Nevada Public Radio and Capital Public Radio, Bert was a contributor at KQED and the Sacramento News & Review. He was also a photographer, video editor and digital producer at the East Bay Express.