Nevada criminal justice reform bill heard by lawmakers

Published Fri, Mar 8, 2019 (9:03 a.m.)

Updated Fri, Mar 8, 2019 (2:17 p.m.)

CARSON CITY — Lawmakers held a hearing Friday on a contentious and wide-ranging criminal justice reform bill that has pitted prosecutors against public defenders.

Supporters contend the legislation seeks to lower recidivism rates, curb an expanding prison population and give Nevada a fresh approach to a dated criminal justice system by investing in efforts help offenders re-enter society.

Prosecutors and law enforcement acknowledge the need for some reforms, but oppose the bill in its current form, saying it would hurt public safety. They raised concerns over how the bill would ease punishments for certain crimes and have said it would allow offenders who violate certain parts of their probation to avoid having their probation revoked.

The panel that heard the bill closed its meeting without a vote.

The bill reflects recommendations outlined in a legislative report released in January, which said Nevada's imprisonment rate is 15 percent higher than the national average.

The state's prison population is expected to grow significantly by 2028, according to the report, which added it will cost the state $770 million over a decade. The new proposal would cut 89 percent of the projected expansion in the prison population and save $640 million, according to the report.

Democratic Assemblyman Steve Yeager said the system is failing women and is falling short as a whole because offenders continue to reoffend.

"Instead of trying to solve the problem, the approach has more often been to warehouse an offender — out of sight, out of mind," he said. He said the bill is likely the "single most important and transformative" legislation on the topic in history.

The bill would cut prison time for some crimes, like maintaining a drug house. It also raises the monetary threshold for a felony theft charge, expands the pre-adjudicatory diversion program for certain non-violent felony offenders and provides increased support to offenders re-entering society, among other measures.

Jason Woodbury with Nevada District Attorneys Association said on Thursday the bill will make it practically impossible for habitual criminals to receive harsher jail sentences.

"It just goes too far too fast, and significantly compromises public safety," said Woodbury, the Carson City district attorney.

Chuck Callaway, a lobbyist for the Las Vegas Metro Police Department, warned the bill will make it harder to hold drug traffickers accountable.

"Nothing in the bill addresses criminal behavior," he said. "It simply says 'We're going to reduce crime penalties to save money on jail beds.'"

He expressed support for some recommendations in the January report, such as ensuring law enforcement officers receive crisis intervention training.

People on both sides of the criminal justice debate have expressed a willingness to continue work on the bill. Yeager has proposed an amendment that removes a provision that would have lowered prison time for a felon found in possession of a firearm.

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