Two days before Christmas of 2013, Wiz Rouzard was at a stoplight when he noticed a homeless man begging for food on the side of the road. Feeling sympathy for the man, Rouzard stopped and rolled down his window.
Cars behind him started honking, so the Las Vegas resident pulled into a Walgreens parking lot to give the individual food he happened to have with him. Then, a police car appeared.
A Metro officer stepped out of the car and informed Rouzard that it is illegal to feed a homeless person from a vehicle in the street. Rouzard hadn’t broken the law, since he had pulled over first, but the officer determined that the police department had a warrant for Rouzard’s arrest because of a $50 traffic ticket Rouzard had failed to pay nearly a year earlier.
Rouzard was arrested for the first time in his life for the unpaid parking ticket that he thought had been resolved months before. His bail for the $50 ticket totaled $2,000.
He didn’t have the money to bail himself out of jail, but he was able to get someone to bail him out the next day.
“I had to literally call a friend, who had to go to a bail bondsman, and I had to pay the bondsman [a $250 fee],” Rouzard said. “Then I had to appear in court the next day. And [the charge] was squashed.”
Rouzard is now campaigning with Americans for Prosperity, a Koch brothers-backed conservative political advocacy group, for decreasing the incidence of cash bail in Nevada. AFP is part of a broad coalition of groups backing Assembly Bill 325, which would overhaul the bail system in the state by asking judges to use cash bail as a last resort, rather than “the default,” said Assemblyman Ozzie Fumo, D-Las Vegas, the bill’s sponsor.
The intention of bail money is to ensure that someone who is accused of a crime will show up to court for a hearing. In Nevada, a standardized bail schedule is applied based on the crime for which someone is arrested; for example, the standard bail for graffiti is $1,500.
Defendants are expected to pay the bail, and then they get their money back after their court hearing. If they can’t pay, they often remain in jail until their hearing.
Fumo, a practicing attorney, says the cash bail system here leads to thousands of Nevadans being held in jail for days, weeks or months before they’ve been convicted of a crime, solely because they can’t afford their bail. Supporters of AB325, such as pastor Raymond Giddens Sr. of Unity Baptist Church in Las Vegas, say that when poor or indigent people can’t pay their bail and are kept in jail indefinitely, it can turn their lives upside down.
“People lose their jobs over parking tickets,” Giddens said. “Some people have lost their homes even. They’re not able to pay their mortgage or their rent and they’re out on the streets. Unless you have a family to stand with you in times like that, it’s rough.”
In addition, supporters of pretrial reform say the current system comes at a hefty cost to taxpayers—Clark County spends $150 a day per inmate in its detention centers, Metro reports —and results in overcrowded jails.
“It’s a fallacy to say we need to keep them in there because they’ll flee. It’s a fraud,” Fumo said. “And it’s costing hardworking Nevadans millions of dollars a year.”
Under Fumo’s reform bill, anyone arrested for a crime who is able to pay their bail would be permitted to post it and get out of jail. Those unable to pay, however, would have to see a judge within 48 hours of their arrest to limit pre-conviction jail time.
At their own discretion, the judge could then determine the best way to ensure the defendant’s court appearance without using cash bail, such as putting the defendant on house arrest or ordering them to go to counseling sessions. These measures would cost taxpayers less and would be less disruptive to the defendant’s life than sitting in jail, Fumo said.
“My bill says to the judges, ‘Look at cash last,’ ” he said.
In addition to AFP, supporters of AB325 include the ACLU of Nevada, the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada and faith organizers in Clark County, among others.
For Holly Welborn, policy director of the ACLU of Nevada, the bipartisan support for cash bail reform reflects the “grave injustices” of the current system, both from the perspective of defendants and of taxpayers financing overflowing detention centers.
Welborn added that the ACLU and other groups support the bill because it would establish standards statewide for how courts deal with individuals awaiting trial, reducing the use of standardized bail schedules that are inconsistent across jurisdictions.
“One of the main things that bail reform, at least the type we’re looking for, [would bring] is some kind of uniformity across those systems,” Welborn said.
Finally, supporters see cash bail reform as a necessary way to reduce incarceration rates overall. Under the current cash bail system, defendants who are unable to pay their bail are more likely to plead guilty simply because it will get them out of jail, which can lead to harsher convictions.
“Defendants will tell their attorneys, ‘Just get me out of here,’ ” Fumo said.
Cash bail reform in Nevada isn’t without its skeptics. District attorneys from Clark County, Carson City and Henderson expressed opposition to AB325 at a hearing in March, saying it would strip judges of their ability to use bail to ensure the appearance of a defendant in court and could jeopardize public safety.
At the March 21 hearing, Henderson Senior Assistant City Attorney Marc Schifalacqua offered a scenario in which under the current bill, it would be more difficult for a judge to force an individual arrested for stalking someone to remain in jail while awaiting trial.
“Under this bill, this would take away a judge’s discretion to even tell or order a defendant that has done those things ... to not go to [the alleged victim’s] place of employment, to not go to her home, to not go to her children’s school,” Schifalacqua said.
The City of Henderson declined to share the City Attorney Office’s stance on the bill, and the Clark County district attorney did not respond to requests for comment.
Other critics of AB325 include bail bondsmen, who lend money to defendants who can’t pay their bail and charge a fee for these services. Bail bondsman Daryl Byron DeShaw of Dad’s Bail Bonds argued that bail can be a more affordable option than house arrest for some defendants, and that bail is the best way to ensure that people show up for court.
“Do we need bail reform? Absolutely,” DeShaw said. “But we should start with the standard bail schedule. That should be the same anywhere in the state.”
Although the Nevada Sheriffs’ and Chiefs’ Association and the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department initially opposed aspects of AB325, including a proposed ban on shackling defendants during court appearances, both organizations have reversed their stances after some provisions were modified.
“We’ve worked with Assemblyman Fumo, and I believe those aspects of the bill are going to be removed,” said Chuck Callaway, a lobbyist for Metro. “We’re not going to take a position on the bail part of it.”
In the meantime, Assemblywoman Dina Neal, D-North Las Vegas, has introduced Assembly Bill 125, which would prohibit courts from relying exclusively on standardized bail schedules when determining bail. Fumo hopes that lawmakers, as well as those involved in the criminal justice system, will come up with a solution that works for everyone, perhaps combining AB325 with AB125.
Rouzard emphasized that Nevada should follow in the footsteps of some other states, such as California and New Jersey, that have already overhauled their cash bail system.
“We want to be smart on crime and soft on taxpayers,” he said. “This isn’t a Democrat or Republican issue. It’s truly an American issue that needs to be resolved now.”
This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.