Lawmakers mull justice reform in session’s last days

State Sen. Nicole Cannizzaro, D-Las Vegas, listens to testimony at the Nevada Legislature on Feb. 9, 2017.

State Sen. Nicole Cannizzaro, D-Las Vegas, listens to testimony at the Nevada Legislature on Feb. 9, 2017.

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Lawmakers are considering a series of criminal reform bills that could dramatically change how Nevada addresses an expanding prison population, minor traffic infractions and whether people are able to seal low-level marijuana convictions.

More than a dozen different bills are under consideration in the final weeks of the legislative session. How far the state goes will depend on a state Senate committee headed by a Clark County prosecutor with a reputation for being tough on crime.

The Assembly has passed bills that would streamline the sealing of low-level marijuana convictions, allow a court to give time credit to those on house arrest and outline the process to expunge criminal records in a wrongful arrest.

At the center of the reform platform is a bill that proposes sweeping changes to the state’s criminal justice system and aims to save the state money and curb an increasing prison population. A legislative report estimates that a growing prison population is expected to cost an extra $770 million over the next decade.

The measures face an uncertain future in the Senate Judiciary committee, which is headed by Democratic Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro, a Clark County prosecutor.

She said she is seeking to ensure “that we’re not over criminalizing and over prosecuting and over incarcerating people for low-level, non-violent offenses.”

The original version of the bill sparked concerns from prosecutors and the Clark County district attorney’s office. Law enforcement acknowledged the need for some reforms, but said it would hurt public safety.

The Assembly is now considering an amended version that pushes back on a bid to lessen jail time for crimes such as theft and ex-felons in possession of a weapon.

Lawyers defending a man in three murder cases in Las Vegas have questioned Cannizzaro’s role as a legislator.

In a court filing last month, they said Cannizzaro and Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson would not allow death penalty repeal bills to be heard because they are both prosecutors. The filing claimed Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson has “direct authority over the legislative leadership.”

Cannizzaro has declined comment on the court filing and Frierson did not immediately return a message on Friday.

Lawmakers described Cannizzaro as a vehemently fair legislator, but there is some uncertainty over where she will stand on the reform measures. This week, she expressed support for bail reform and pointed to past criminal reform measures she has been a part of.

She also defended advocating for increased punishments for certain crimes, saying that repeated domestic violence offenders or people who abuse the elderly should be held more accountable.

“It’s not as though I’m coming here and saying that somebody who stole a candy bar from a 7-11 needs to be prosecuted for a category A felony and serve a life sentence,” she said.

Democrat Steve Yeager, a former public defender who leads the Assembly Judiciary Committee, said the reform bills are sound policy and he’s not worried about their future.

“Obviously, she comes at this from a prosecutor background. I probably come at it from a defense background,” he said. “But I think both of us, you know, are able to step back and look at our roles as policy makers and what’s going to be best for the state.”


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