Judges say pumping money into Nevada's specialty courts could significantly reduce the load on the state's prisons.
Clark County District Judge Jackie Glass presented a report to the Advisory Commission on the Administration of Justice recommending an infusion of $42.5 million to fully fund drug, mental health and DUI court programs that would reduce the number of people being sent to prison.
"There is a significant number of people who could be diverted from prison," Glass told the commission headed by Supreme Court Justice Jim Hardesty. She said diversion programs would be "far better than warehousing these folks."
"It's expensive, but it's an investment in people's future," Glass said. "An attempt to get these people, who are typically non-violent, back into society."
Nevada's district courts operate adult, juvenile, re-entry and dependency drug courts, mental health courts and felony DUI courts. According to studies, all have proven successful at rehabilitating people who would otherwise be sent to prison.
Glass was joined by Elko District Judge Andrew Puccinelli and senior district judges Peter Breen and Archie Blake, both of whom retired in 2006 and are now volunteering their time to help rural parts of Nevada provide specialty court programs.
Blake told the commission many of these programs - including the Felony DUI court - are mandated by the Legislature.
"But in the rurals, there's no money," he said.
Puccinelli said the drug court program there is now funded by a federal grant but that will end after this year.
"If we don't get some more money somewhere, it's going to dry up," he said.
He said the problem in Elko and most of the rest of rural Nevada is the lack of services for those addicted to drugs and alcohol and those in need of mental health services.
"We could do these things if we had enough treatment," he said.
Eastern Nevada's biggest problem, Puccinelli said, is juvenile methamphetamine addicts. He described them as "inmates in waiting," who will end up in prison once they reach 18 unless they get treatment to break the cycle of addiction.
The judges told the commission that $42.5 million is about half the projected $80 million annual operating cost of the proposed 1,770 bed prison the state is planning to build. They argued funding those specialty courts could keep twice that number of inmates - an estimated 3,639 - out of prison.
The judges pointed out that drug courts, for example, have an 85 percent success rate in rehabilitating people. They said the success rate for addicted inmates released without treatment is only about 11 percent.
"Given the chance and given the funding, we could make a difference in many lives," said Glass.
In addition to funding, Breen called for legislative changes that would open up specialty courts to more inmates and remove obstacles. He said specialty court judges should have the authority to allow people in the judicial system in but that existing law allows district attorneys to block them.
"If you're trusting judges to make all these other decisions up to the death penalty, shouldn't they be allowed to decide who is allowed in drug court," he asked.
Glass agreed, pointing out that the Clark County district attorney's office "has pulled out of all of our specialty courts."
And Breen argued it would be a great incentive to those facing possible prison if specialty court judges had the ability to seal a person's record and dismiss drug charges if they successfully complete a rehabilitation program.
Hardesty said he agrees something must be done to expand the use of specialty courts. He said the need for those types of services is at least double the current capacity of drug and mental health courts.
The commission is studying a wide variety of issues facing Nevada's judicial system and is charged with developing recommendations for the governor and the 2009 Legislature.
• Contact reporter Geoff Dornan at firstname.lastname@example.org or 687-8750.