Panel eyes changes to slow prison growth

The Advisory Commission on the Administration of Justice on Friday approved a package of recommendations designed to slow the growth of Nevada’s prison population and save the state millions.

Assemblyman Steve Yeager, D-Las Vegas, who chaired the six-month study, said the national incarceration rate is going down while Nevada’s prison population has grown 7 percent since 2009. He said the state’s imprisonment rate is now 15 percent higher than the national average.

Yeager said the female incarceration rate has grown even more dramatically, at four times the male rate — 39 percent.

He said those figures come despite the fact four out of 10 people entering prison in 2017 had no prior felony record and 37 percent of property offenders and 41 percent of drug offenders had no prior felony convictions.

A major problem, according to data from the Crime and Justice Institute, is the lack of alternatives available to those convicted of felonies and the fact that, even if a defendant completes specialty court programs, he or she still has a felony on their record.

That’s the practice in Nevada despite the fact data shows deferred sentences have a more positive impact in changing offender behavior.

Add to that, the fact that far too many offenders placed on parole or probation are sent to prison for minor infractions such as testing positive for drugs. One in five who are discharged from prison and one in three parolees return to prison within three years.

Unless changes are made, Yeager said Nevada’s prison population will grow by an additional 9 percent, costing the state $770 million over the next 10 years.

The recommendations approved Friday, he said, would save 89 percent of that increase, about $640 million.

Those recommendations include providing Crisis Intervention Training for police to identify individuals with mental health and other issues. They would also include funding to expand the options available for law enforcement in those situations.

Legal changes would establish pre-prosecution diversion for first-time non-violent offenders. They would increase the use of community supervision rather than revoking an offender who’s struggling with behavioral health or drug issues.

They would establish a rebuttable presumption of sentence deferral for certain non-violent offenders. They would amend Nevada’s burglary statute, which has been described as over-broad and applies the same penalties to non-residential structures as to home burglaries. It says home invasion should be treated differently than other types of burglary.

Recommendations would increase the felony theft threshold from $650 to $2,000. Thefts below that amount, it would treat as misdemeanors or gross misdemeanors. The panel voted that simple possession of a controlled substance should be a misdemeanor, not a felony and judges should have more discretion in sentencing drug offenses. They would amend trafficking laws to require evidence of intent to sell or manufacture.

They would reclassify numerous Category B offenses that now include such things as larceny by false pretenses and theft of a fire prevention device in the same list as human trafficking and battery with intent to kill.

They recommended providing a specialty parole option for long-term geriatric inmates since research has found age is one of the most significant predictors of criminal activity. That would also reduce prison medical costs for older inmates with a higher incidence of health issues.

They recommended reducing the maximum probation period from five to three years and establishing a tiered system based on the category of the offense. That proposal would also recommend early termination of probation if the offender has had no violation in 12 months.

They recommended expansion of re-entry programs to remove hurdles hindering an inmate’s ability to successfully transition back into society including providing the inmate with identification, a 30-day supply of their prescribed medications and transportation fare. They would also expand traditional housing for offenders without stable housing and require enrollment for eligible offenders in Medicaid and Medicare.

The recommendations will be presented to the 2019 Legislature when it convenes Feb. 4.


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