Nevada panel studies pretrial release of criminal defendants

Nevada lawmakers were told Tuesday that, nationwide, three-quarters of jail inmates have not been convicted of a crime but are being held pretrial because they can’t afford bail.

Amber Widgery of the National Conference of State Legislatures made the statements to the first meeting of the interim committee charged with studying and making recommendations on pretrial release of criminal defendants.

Members of the panel headed by Sen. Dallas Harris, D-Las Vegas, asked staff to find out what percentage of Nevada jail inmates eligible for pretrial release are in the same category. About 90 percent of those in jail here are in just two facilities: Washoe County’s Parr Boulevard jail in Reno and the Metropolitan Police facility in Las Vegas.

Assemblyman Edgar Flores, D-Las Vegas, said he would like staff to also find out what percentage of people released pending trial were making their court appearances.

In Nevada, only those charged with murder and those felony parolees arrested for a new and different offense can be held without bail.

John McCormick, Nevada assistant court administrator, told the committee there have been “egregious examples of people being in jail solely because they cannot afford to bail.” He said that is a serious 14th Amendment violation if people are incarcerated, “simply because they can’t pay for their release.”

Widgery said, there are some 731,000 people in America’s jails. She said that includes an estimated 120,000 who are being held for other state, local or federal agencies including about 12,000 on an immigration hold. It also includes a relatively small number being held without bail on serious charges including murder. When those are removed, the percentage of pretrial inmates is still two-thirds of the total.

McCormick said the Nevada Pretrial Risk Assessment tool will be mandatory statewide by September. That tool is designed to help judges determine how much of a risk a defendant poses to public safety or a risk not to show up for court. It has been in development for several years, was put out as a pilot program a couple of years ago and met with success in evaluating defendants.

“This year, each court in the state will have to use the tool,” he said.

But he added that judges still have the authority to deviate from what the defendant’s score using that tool recommends.

“It’s evidence-based information for the judge to use in setting bail,” he said.

The laws regarding bail, he told lawmakers, have been changing over the past few years, moving more and more toward “own recognizance” (OR) releases in many more cases. He said a dozen states and the District of Columbia has a “statutory presumption of release.”

Harris said the next meeting of the committee will focus on stakeholders including district attorneys, law enforcement and the ACLU. They will also hear from bail bondsmen who, for obvious reasons, don’t like the idea of most defendants getting out OR.


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