Several Social, Criminal Justice Reform Bills Eyed In Nevada Legislature
Many expected the state’s economy, battered by COVID-19, to be the focus of this year’s legislative session. And it will be.
But lawmakers have their eyes on other areas as well -- especially social and criminal justice.
Members of the Assembly and Senate hope to address issues such as maintaining employment for immigrants, scratching slavery from the state constitution and mandating minimum wage for prison inmates.
SB 140 would allow inmates to get minimum wage for their work:
Dina Neal is a Nevada state senator who is the primary sponsor of many social justice bills.
Neal: “My bill that focused on wages was to provide them a living wage so that when they were released they didn't rely on government services when they exited. I found it to be counter-intuitive to have government services inside the prison and then have them get on welfare when they’ve left the prison and yet they worked for a private company and they were able to earn wages.”
Neal explained that prison labor has been around for years ever since Reconstruction, when southern states didn't want to lose their labor force so they were allowed to use prison labor - first in government work. Now, private companies use it.
She said private companies apply to use prisoners as laborers. If the committee overseeing the program finds that their labor won't impact other parts of the workforce, it is likely approved.
Right now, private companies in Nevada employ prisoners to make a range of products from mattresses to eyeglasses. They are also used to fight fires in California and Nevada for the Division of Forestry.
On average, she said, prisoners are paid about $77 a month. However, out of that money, they must pay for things like soap at the commissary, as well as room and board and building upkeep at the prison.
With so little to live on, Neal said prisoners have to rely on family members to pay for necessities from the prison store. Instead, she would like savings accounts to be set up so prisoners have money to start rebuilding their lives when they come out of prison.
One of the big arguments for using prison labor is that inmates can learn a skill that they can use once they are released. Neal said it is important for inmates to learn a skill, but “I also think it is very important the skill that they learn is actually the job that they receive on the other end."
She noted that Clark County alone spent $3 million last year to fund nonprofits that help former prisoners find jobs. She would rather see government money spent on what people expect it to do -- help former inmates get back into society when they're released.
She admitted her plan to improve wages for prisoners is an "aggressive policy" that may not solve all the problems in the prison system, but she believes now is the time to open the door on the conversation.
“The system will be challenged, but I think we need to ask ourselves what is the greater good going on.”
Five bills addressing evictions:
Laura Martin, executive director, Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada:
"I think the system is set up against tenants. There is a huge imbalance of power between landlords and tenants. Property owners and landlords can charge weird fees. We're learning that people are being charged for using the lightbulbs in the apartment or using a microwave. There is a bill to address that."
Martin also said there is a bill to address renting to pet owners and the rules that some landlords put up around having pets in a rental property.
She said many of the issues that lawmakers are now trying to address have come to the surface because of the pandemic and the eviction moratorium that has been put into place.
"Thankfully, the Legislature is really stepping up and saying, 'We can't have this. This is no longer going between a property owner's rights, this is taking advantage of somebody in a desperate situation," she said.
There are bills that address equal rights for women:
AB 124 deals with the Nevada Pay Equity Act. It would, in part, better ensure women are not discriminated against in promotions and wages. AB 224 would require middle and high schools to place free feminine hygiene products in bathrooms. And SB 190 would no longer require a doctor’s approval for birth control pills.
The Nevada Legislature is a female majority legislative body, but Martin notes not all women have the same priorities.
"Despite it being majority women, it may still have been hard to pass what I would say is common-sense practices," she said.
On why social and criminal justice reforms are getting traction now:
Neal: “I think the environment has allowed for us to talk about racial justice. I think we were in an environment for the past four years where it really made us question equality and where we stand as a state and as a nation.”
Martin: "Years ago, I've sat in rooms with people in the legislature and been told, 'These are good ideas, but it makes me look soft on crime' and now these ideas are now their priority. That doesn't just come from one person complaining about it. It's community organizing. It's building a narrative. It's building a base and making sure that people know this is not being soft on crime, it's being for the humanity of people and understanding that our injustice system does not rehabilitate. It breaks families. It breaks people."
Dina Neal, state senator; Laura Martin, executive director, Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada.