Consultant: Problem neighborhoods foster crime
A nationally known corrections consultant told Nevada lawmakers Thursday if they want to reduce the growth of the state’s prison population, they have to look outside the prisons and find ways to prevent inmates from coming in the first place.
James Austin appeared before three different legislative committees Thursday, telling lawmakers Nevada’s parole system is working well with some 80 percent of inmates released completing their parole compared with 45 percent nationally. But he pointed out that is after they have served time.
He said the state’s probation system, which diverts the felon before he or she goes to prison, has a success rate of only about 50 percent, and needs improvement.
He said Nevada has a great opportunity to reduce prison population projections and save millions by improving that system.
But, he said, the ultimate way to save is to prevent those individuals from ever becoming criminals. Austin said he is doing a study that will show a disproportionate number of prison inmates come from specific neighborhoods in Las Vegas, Reno and even Carson City.
And he told lawmakers in both the money committees and Senate Judiciary the location of those neighborhoods will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with their community. They are the poorer neighborhoods.
Austin said he and his staff simply plot the home addresses of inmates and parolees on a map and “it gets real heavy in those places.”
“You’re not going to have a small prison system in a society that has large pockets of poverty, unemployment and drug abuse,” he said in an interview after the hearings. “States like Nevada, which have these pockets, need to try fixing them. Unless you believe people are born that way, you have to try to reduce the incidence of people getting involved in criminal activity.”
Austin said that if the state deals with the drug, poverty and other issues in those areas, “the prison system will be fixed.”
If it doesn’t, he said, those neighborhoods will be the breeding ground for today’s teens who will be the prison inmates of the next decade.
His report to lawmakers showed the results of a similar study done in Arizona, which showed that just two of 15 neighborhood areas in Phoenix accounted for more than $100 million a year in prison expenditures. He said a study in New York pinpointed one building – a high-rise public housing project which had fallen into chaos – as the center of a huge amount of criminal activity.
Austin said the second study he is doing for Nevada will spell out ways to improve the state’s parole, probation and criminal sentencing systems. He plans to present that study to lawmakers in March.
He said the parole system’s high success rate – 80 percent – and low recidivism – 27 percent – shows it is working well. But, he said, those numbers also indicate that Nevada has too many low-risk offenders in its prison system who could be released without danger to society.
He said many of them wouldn’t have to be put in prison if the probation system worked better. The key difference between the two systems, he said, is that parolees have a “carrot” before them in the form of good time credits that further reduce their parole term for good behavior while probationers don’t. Probationers, he said, must simply serve their full term with no incentive for good conduct.
Giving low-risk probation candidates more incentive and more support to stay with drug abuse, education and other programs, he said, would keep many more of them from ever becoming inmates – in the process saving the state millions of dollars.
Austin’s final appearance Thursday was before the Assembly’s Select Committee on Corrections, Parole and Probation. That committee was formed in response to the state’s prison overcrowding crisis.
Outgoing Corrections Director Glen Whorton told lawmakers in January that Nevada needs to build $1.91 billion in new prisons in the next eight years. For the coming two years alone, Whorton said the cost would be $258 million in construction and a 23 percent, $120 million increase in his operating budget to hire 353 more guards and support staff.
Without the increases, he warned, the state could face lawsuits and federal intervention in the operation of Nevada’s prisons.
• Contact reporter Geoff Dornan at email@example.com or 687-8750.