Prison study shows some judges tougher than others

Your chances of going to prison vary widely depending on what part of Nevada you were convicted in and which judge did the sentencing.

The percentage of convicted felons who were sentenced to prison instead of probation or some other penalty ranged from 58 percent by one unidentified judge to just 23 percent by another, according to a study by the Grant Sawyer Center for Justice Studies.

The 30 judges studied were not identified by name. Matthew Leone, who headed the study, said they were selected because each tried more than 50 criminal cases during 2007. Those with fewer criminal cases were not included.

But the percentage of convicts sent to prison in each judicial district was identified. There, the chances of prison instead of parole ranged from 25 percent in Nevada's Sixth District " Humboldt, Pershing and Lander counties " to 46 percent in the Third Judicial District " Churchill and Lyon counties. In Clark and Washoe the percentage was 33, in Carson City 36 percent and 41 percent in Douglas.

Leone pointed out the disparity isn't necessarily a bad thing, that it may be a reflection of the differences in the types and severity of the cases each judge handled. He said in that case, the differences might be an indication the judges involved are making sound decisions based on unique factors in those cases.

Supreme Court Justice Jim Hardesty, who chairs the Commission on the Administration of Justice, asked the researchers to pull out the top five and bottom five judges on the list to make a more detailed comparison of their sentencing practices.

The researchers were challenged when they said that, in fully 12.5 percent of the 10,871 cases they evaluated, the sentence handed down wasn't within the statutory mandates for the crime.

"I find it totally unbelievable that 12 percent of sentences are outside what can legally be imposed," said Clark County District Judge Douglas Herndon.

He said there must be other factors in those cases that the research group isn't aware of.

But Leone said one example is a crime that carries a sentence of one to five years where the sentence given was greater than 5 years.

The commission asked for a sample list of 100 cases to look at so the judges on the commission can figure out what's going on. Churchill County District Attorney Art Mallory said if there are illegal sentences, they need to be corrected.

The study showed that Nevada has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the nation at just 29 percent. That is the number of inmates who return to prison within three years of their release. James Austin, the prison system's nationally recognized consultant, said that compares with states like California, where the rate is 60 percent. But he said that is partly because California returns a parolee to prison for almost any violation of release conditions, no matter how slight.

Austin also said the data shows little difference in the rate of recidivism between inmates who served 12 months and those who served 60 months or more. The rate is between 25 percent and 27 percent through most of that range.

The commission was frustrated, however, by the lack of data from the counties. Austin and Leone told them it's not a lack of cooperation but the inability of, primarily, Clark County, to provide the case information in anything except a paper format. Leone said there is no way the research group can go through hundreds of thousands of pages of arrest and conviction data on paper.

Hardesty and other members agreed that the situation makes it a priority to get computer systems at every police agency, court, the state parole and probation division and the Department of Corrections so that they can exchange data electronically.

Director of Corrections Howard Skolnik said the first step is making sure everyone uses the same definitions for everything from inmate populations to recidivism. He and others also agreed every law enforcement agency must also collect the same data and that it should stay with the convicted felon from arrest to release.

The commission created a subcommittee to study exactly what the communication issues are between the various agencies, decide what information should be collected and standardize things so that everyone can communicate with everyone else.

Contact reporter Geoff Dornan at or 687-8750.


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