Nevada NewsMakers

News - April 24, 2019 - by Ray Hagar

By Ray Hagar

Nevada Newsmakers

The cost of Nevada's current criminal justice system is growing at an alarming rate, as are male and female prisoner populations, Nevada Supreme Court Justice Jim Hardesty said on Nevada Newsmakers.

As a result, he is a strong supporter of Assembly Bill 236, which would overhaul the state's criminal justice system, change some punishments to fit the crime and save the state about $650 million in the next 10 years.

Hardesty told host Sam Shad that the proposal -- that includes 25 recommendations now being considered in the Legislature -- comes after more than $1 million was spent by the Crime and Justice Institute of Boston, Mass., on a data-driven assessment of Nevada's criminal justice system

Some of the recommendations include giving judges more discretion for alternative sentencing, adjusting punishments for burglary and theft, creating diversionary treatments for drug users and reclassifying several felonies.

Revamping the criminal justice system could mean increases in funding for other needs, said Hardesty, a Supreme Court justice since 2005.

"Now, when legislators are thinking about where are we going to get funds to pay teachers and where are we going to get funds to improve our mental health services and where are we going to get funds to do a number of things that are demands in front of the Legislature and governor, one of those sources is to re-invest from savings that can be accomplished in reforms of the criminal justice system," Hardesty said.

Prison costs have skyrocketed in Nevada, perhaps more than other states. In the current system, the state's prison population is expected to hit 15,000 by 2028 at a cost increase of $770 million, according to legislative testimony.

Since 2009, Nevada's prison population has grown 7 percent, Hardesty said. During the same time, prison populations across the nation have dropped by 7 percent, according to legislative testimony.

"The state now has an imprisonment rate that is 15 percent higher than the national average," Hardesty said. "The state's female prison population has grown by four times the rate of the overall prison population."

Yet AB 236, shepherded in the Legislature by Assembly Judiciary Committee Chairman Steve Yeager, D-Las Vegas, does not include any breaks for violent criminals.

"I am not talking about violent criminals," Hardesty said. "I am not talking about those who have engaged in that kind of behavior. That is what prison is for and those people need to go to prison for appropriate lengths of time.

"So this is not about violent offenses," he said. "And in our statues, there are probably about 44 or 45 such offenses that are defined. That is not what we are talking about.

"What we are talking about is offenders who are non-violent offenders," Hardesty said. "We want to extend to judges the ability to divert those folks away from incurring a felony, which is on their record for a long period of time and affects their life. But more importantly, get them into treatment so that they can be, hopefully, rehabilitated."

In the past, the Nevada Legislature's tough-on-crime stance has led to its approval of some overly stiff penalties for some crimes. Lawmakers have said in the past that stiffer penalties are a way to deter crime.

"We want to also make sure the sentence lengths for certain crimes are proportionate," Hardesty said. "For the first time since 1995 when Truth in Sentencing was enacted, the Legislature is now in a position to debate sentence lengths for things like burglary or other types of crimes that have taken place.

"Should it be two to 15 years and when should it kick in?" he said. "And should the judge have alternatives?"

Hardesty wants to see changes in the administration of Category B felonies, which can command prison sentences of up to 20 years. Some current Class B felonies include crimes against the elderly, shooting a gun from a moving car, arson, burglary, theft of $3,500 and having a third DUI within seven years.

"The biggest reform I think, is effectuating some changes in some of the Category B Felonies," he said. "What drives the prison population is the length of time some people are in there and the inability for any kind of rehabilitative service. We need to be able to address these more on the front end."

Theft and burglary are Category B felonies where reform of punishment is needed, Hardesty said.

"I know there has been some concern about the issue but the fact of the matter is Nevada has some of the most draconian theft statues that separate a felony from a gross misdemeanor in the country. Our burglary statute, long ago abandoned the common law. Forty-three states have statues that are different and proportional than what we have."

Hardesty also wants reform for some illegal drug users.

"A number of people in the system are caught up in drugs and opioid use," Hardesty said. "Can we divert some of those users in the criminal justice system and into treatment?"