Justice: Prison reform needs urgent | NevadaAppeal.com

Justice: Prison reform needs urgent

Nevada Supreme Court Justice James Hardesty warned lawmakers Tuesday they must act to reduce crowding before the prison system goes over its maximum capacity.

“We will exceed capacity in our prisons by November,” he told a joint subcommittee of Senate Finance and Assembly Ways and Means. “This cannot happen.”

Hardesty called for a sentencing commission, “and charged the commission to act swiftly and come back with detailed recommendations in four months.”

He said the Legislature should make those recommendations happen in a special session next fall.

His comments followed a 90-minute presentation by consultants with the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments. In the presentation, James F. Austin told lawmakers Nevada must find a different answer to crime than putting everyone in jail longer.

Austin said part of Nevada’s problem is that fully half of those put on probation fail and are sent to jail. He said if the probation system can be fixed, inmate population projections will be reduced.

He and Dr. Fred Osher said a major part of the problem is the lack of substance abuse, anger management, mental health, educational and other programs for those put on probation to go to.

Austin said, for example, if a probationer needs to learn English better to get a job or to learn how to read, there are no programs out there to help him.

“There’s nowhere to go,” he said.

After a month or two, they said, the probationers start to get into trouble by falling back into old habits. Osher said 70 percent of those referred to community services can’t get help for a month or more.

They said the lack of programs is acute both in the community and inside the Nevada prison system.

“If you want to make programs a condition for release, they have to have programs to go to,” Osher said.

He said 29 percent of inmates have a mental health diagnosis, double the national average for prison systems. He also said 43 percent of Nevada inmates have some substance addiction.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, said, as a former prosecutor, he believes special attention should be focused on first-time offenders who may be turned around.

Austin agreed and said lawmakers also need to find some intermediate sanctions for parolees and probationers so that every violation doesn’t result in prison time.

Hardesty said there isn’t a single silver bullet to fix Nevada’s prison overcrowding.

He said the answer will be a combination of increasing good time credits, substance abuse, mental health and other programs, improving the probation system, deporting illegals now serving time and strengthening drug courts.

“There is a plethora of answers,” he said.

Hardesty said, for example, the re-entry drug court program has only 20 clients in Clark County, 16 in Washoe and one in Elko because it’s almost impossible for inmates to get into the programs. He said judges operating them say they are budgeted for $5 million, but need more like $30 million to get inmates moving through the process.

He said the prison and judicial systems may not need more money as much as they need to redirect money.

But Hardesty put in his pitch for one change he said could help significantly in certain cases: Give judges more discretion to make exceptions to some of the mandatory minimum sentences that have become popular with prosecutors and lawmakers.

He cited the case of a 19-year-old hauling drugs from California to Utah who gets caught on a traffic stop in the middle of Nevada, saying there should be some way not to imprison that youth for years and years.

“Give judges the authority to deviate in situations like that so we do not incarcerate the wrong people,” he said.

Hardesty said the goal of lawmakers and the sentencing commission should be to reduce Nevada’s 13,100 prison population by 2,000.

The joint subcommittee took no action on the proposals.

• Contact reporter Geoff Dornan at gdornan@nevadaappeal.com or 687-8750.