Two state Supreme Court justices pushed Monday to revise Nevada's sentencing laws, and spend more money on drug and mental health programs.
Justice Jim Hardesty asked lawmakers to let judges deviate from mandatory sentencing laws established in 1995, as long as the judge submits written findings explaining why the deviation is appropriate. Prosecutors could appeal the action to the Supreme Court if they disagreed.
"It makes absolutely no sense for us to sentence a young man to 10 to 25 years in the Nevada state prison who gets paid $150 to drive a car from Sacramento to Utah" containing narcotics, Hardesty told the Senate Judiciary Committee.
But Hardesty said Nevada laws don't allow prosecutors to make deals in such cases, or allow judges to deviate from sentencing rules.
Hardesty said that allowing judges to deviate from the rules, with findings, is similar to how sentencing guidelines are used in federal courts.
Judiciary Chairman Mark Amodei, R-Carson City, said he's open to returning some discretion to the judges, but they'd have to be careful to explain their decisions. The mandatory sentencing rules were established in 1995 after victims' rights groups demanded them, he said.
"Those mandatory sentencings were the result of rooms like this being packed with people who said, 'Hey, so and so got a sweetheart of a deal,"' said Amodei.
While the justices pushed for more flexible sentencing guidelines in Amodei's committee, Hardesty and Chief Justice Bill Maupin also are asking lawmakers on money committees to support drug and mental health court programs that can get offenders into treatment programs rather than prison.
"When I first heard about this program, I was very skeptical," said Maupin. "What I found out was, mental health courts around this country have become very well recognized as having permanent success."
Hardesty said that the Supreme Court requested $5 million in state general funds to pay for drug courts and treatment programs for drug offenders, but a budget subcommittee recently approved only $1 million for those programs.
"Compared to what we requested, and compared to frankly what the demand is - which is $30 million - it was disappointing," said Hardesty.
That budget isn't yet finalized, and Hardesty said he's still hopeful that lawmakers will see fit to redirect some of the state's prison budget to fund those programs. Gov. Jim Gibbons has urged legislators to spend $300 million on prison construction in his proposed budget.
Clark County has about 75 offenders in drug courts presently, and Hardesty said he's hoping to at least double that number. There's demand for at least 600 offenders to get into drug court, he added.