Judicial Commission recommends treatment instead of prison for drug addicts

The Nevada Supreme Court's Judicial Assessment Commission has recommended treatment instead of prison for drug users and a misdemeanor ticket instead of felony charges for possessing small amounts of marijuana.

Possession of any amount of "pot" and being under the influence of any drug are now classified as felonies under Nevada law. The state's marijuana possession laws are toughest in the United states.

But the commission, appointed and chaired by Chief Justice Bob Rose, has urged those penalties be sharply reduced. Under their proposal, possession of less than an ounce of marijuana would be a misdemeanor and handled by issuing a citation.

If the amount was more than an ounce but less than four ounces, the offense would be punishable as a gross misdemeanor. Only when more than four ounces of marijuana was involved would the charge remain a felony punishable by one to six years in prison.

In addition, unless another offense involving a greater penalty was involved, those under the influence of an illegal drug would face a misdemeanor.

But the proposal gives judges the power to order that person into a treatment program.

District judges around the state have said in the past that well over half the cases that come before them involve some form of substance abuse.

A bill that would have reduced the penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana was defeated in the 1999 Legislature, but another version is being drafted for the 2001 session.

In addition, the judges urged a major change in the law to get the mentally ill out of Nevada's jails. They proposed a state law "requiring the state Mental Health System to take custody of all (mentally ill) persons arrested for committing a crime other than a felony crime of violence."

The judges are also urging the state executive branch "reestablish an appropriate and comprehensive mental health program and adequately fund it" and give judges the authority to divert non-violent offenders with mental illness into treatment.

In addition to changing handling of drug addicts and the mentally ill, the commission report calls for major changes in how judges are selected and in the structure of Nevada's courts. The biggest change would be to impose a version of the Missouri Plan in Nevada where judges would be appointed on merit, then face an election with no opponent after two years on the bench to determine whether the people wanted to "retain" the judge in office. If not, another judge would be appointed. To help people with that election, the commission calls for an evaluation by lawyers and others in the legal community to review each judge's performance.

Judges have long said they don't think it proper for them to have to face a popular election.

Other recommendations include putting the court clerk in every Nevada county under control of the chief judge in that district instead of under the county clerk, creating an appellate court between the district and Supreme Court and unifying the state's justice and municipal courts.

They also want the state to establish uniform data collection from all courts and create a division of planning and analysis within the Administrative Office of the courts.


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