Are we too tough on crime?
In the 13 years since Nevada passed Truth in Sentencing, the state’s tough-on-crime revamp of the criminal code, there has never been a review of whether the program is working.
The new sentencing rules imposed mandatory sentences for some crimes, set minimum sentences and reduced access to credits that would get inmates out sooner. They were designed to cut crime by putting the worst criminals away for longer periods of time.
But Supreme Court Justice Jim Hardesty said Monday the advisory commission created to monitor the effort and report to the Legislature on its impact met only twice, filing reports to the Legislature in 1997 and 1999.
“No evaluation was made of the effectiveness of Truth in Sentencing,” Hardesty said.
The commission was reorganized by the 2007 Legislature to get a handle on a variety of issues facing Nevada’s criminal justice system. That action was taken because of the record growth in Nevada’s inmate population. Amid projections the number of inmates would continue to grow dramatically, lawmakers and Gov. Jim Gibbons were looking at the potential of nearly $2 billion in prison construction in just the next eight years and the possibility of a federal lawsuit if they didn’t find some way to reduce prison overcrowding. They were also looking at the prison system’s share of the budget, already about 18 percent, growing to take a bigger piece of the pie every year.
The situation prompted lawmakers to approve a series of changes designed to reduce the number of inmates and their growing cost to the state, including changes to good time credits, which immediately made some 1,600 inmates eligible for parole.
One of those changes was to re-establish the Advisory Commission on the Administration of Justice with Hardesty as its chairman. And among its tasks was to finally do an objective evaluation of the impact and effectiveness of Truth in Sentencing.
A subcommittee of the new commission headed by Hardesty voted Monday to hire James Austin, who has consulted for the Department of Corrections most of the past decade, to do that study.
“An independent study would help define what the actual effects have been and continue to be on our system,” Hardesty said.
He told the other members of the subcommittee he hopes to have a firm budget for the study this week as well as information on what the PEW Center on the States is willing to contribute to the cost. Hardesty said the commission has a budget of $50,000 but that there are other studies that money must help fund and he is hoping PEW will cover most of the estimated $100,000 cost to do the study.
Hardesty said the goal is to provide the governor and Legislature with recommendations to improve the administration of the criminal justice system in Nevada.
“What we’re trying to do is find a balanced evaluation,” he said. “Then it will be up to this subcommittee, the commission, the legislature and governor to make the public policy decisions.”
• Contact reporter Geoff Dornan at email@example.com or 687-8750.