Reform sought for nonviolent Class B felonies
July 6, 2014
The Clark County Public defender is urging the Advisory Commission on the Administration of Justice to push for changes in the law so some Category B felons can get good time, education and treatment program credits that reduce their sentences.
Category B felonies are the second most serious classification of Nevada felonies. When the category system was created by the so-called "Truth in Sentencing" legislation in 1995, all Category A and a large majority of Category B felonies were for violent or sex crimes.
But Clark County Public Defender Phil Kohn says in the intervening years, a large number of offenses that aren't violent have been added to the list. He said examples include securities fraud, possession of stolen property, mortgage lending fraud, identity theft, gambling without a license, selling a motor vehicle whose odometer has been altered and staging dog fights.
As a result, the number of listed Category B felonies has increased from 127 in 1995 to 211 at last count.
Because of the expanded list of crimes Nevada's prisons are filling up. Corrections spokesman Brian Connett said, as of June 23, 7,948 of the 12,800 in-house inmates are serving time for Category B offenses. When that is added to the 3,489 Category A inmates, the total accounts for all but about 1,300 of Nevada's prison population.
Kohn said many of those crimes were added because of victims who testified in the Legislature.
"This isn't about the public defender wanting criminals on the street," he said.
Advocates including Kohn succeeded in getting a bill making that change for non-violent B-felonies through the Legislature in 2011. But Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed it saying he believed Assembly Bill 136 would "allow dangerous criminals to be prematurely released from prison, thereby increasing risk to Nevada's communities and sending a message to offenders that this state is soft on crime."
Kohn disagreed with the governors saying the bill would have allowed sentence-reducing credits only to those convicted of non-violent/non-sexual and non-DUI crimes. Kohn said the veto surprised him because the proposal isn't exactly a push by just the left.
"Liberals like Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist are part of this group," he said.
They among other conservatives, Kohn said, support changes because they understand how expensive prisons are.
The Department of Corrections has a budget of more than $487 million this biennium — all General Fund money. The department receives almost no funding from the federal government or other non-state sources.
One alternative to giving Category B felons sentence reducing credits is to move some of those felonies back down to Category C where they were originally.
"The problem is every time we have that discussion, the DAs go crazy and say we're threatening public safety," Kohn said.
He said the dog fighting felony is a good example. He said that practice is horrible, "but it's not a Category B felony; it's not the worst of the worst."
Category B isn't the only group of offenses that has expanded over the years. Originally, Category A included just 25 offenses — the obvious crimes such as murder, rape and treason. That list has expanded to 54 offenses during the years.
The number of offenses in Category C also has expanded, nearly doubling to 131.
One surprising increase is in the number of the least serious felonies — Category E crimes that generally don't result in a prison sentence. There were just 15 in that group in 1995. That number has increased to 63, nearly all of which were misdemeanors 20 years ago.
Overall, Nevada now has many more felonies on the books than it did when the system was created as part of the tough on crime movement. In 1995, the total was 416 felonies. Now it's 689.
In part because of that, Nevada's prison population has grown more than 23 percent in the past 10 years while the national growth rate is just 10.7 percent.
While the Department of Corrections has remained neutral on the political debate, a spokesman for Director Greg Cox indicated the focus going forward is not so much on changing the credits but moving some of those Category B offenses back down to Category C and some of the Category A offenses back to B.
The 2007 Legislature expanded good time credits for education, vocational training and treatment programs for C, D and E class felonies, allowing those credits to reduce the minimum prison time for offenders as well as the maximum. That legislation has been credited with greatly slowing the growth of Nevada's prison population. In fact, the total population has decreased below what it was five years ago.
Kohn said the subject of how to deal with the proliferation of B felonies will come up again, probably on Tuesday at the next meeting of the Advisory Commission on the Administration of Justice.
"I'm not saying open up the prisons but there are people who tick us off and people who scare us," Kohn said. "We need to lock up the people who scare us, get the people in prison who are a danger to us."