Criminal justice commission sees lack of services as key issue
The commission appointed to reform Nevada’s criminal justice system from courtroom through parole and release found a common thread through all the issues on the table Tuesday: The lack of funding for anything other than imprisonment.
Presentations from the Department of Corrections, Parole Board and Parole and Probation Division made it clear alternatives that could keep offenders out of prison and parolees out of trouble were woefully inadequate in Nevada. As a result of Nevada’s tough sentencing and criminal prosecution policies, Director of Corrections Howard Skolnik said he will add 439 more staff over the next 18 months, bringing his total personnel to more than 2,800. And he said it costs $250,000 to build each new prison bed and up to $22,000 a year to keep each inmate.
“I’ve got to believe we’ll spend less than that on these resources to keep them out of the system permanently,” Hardesty said.
Skolnik said the answer is to get offenders before they reach the prison gates and, for those who do time, expand programs to fix whatever problems they have so they don’t come back for a second offense.
He and the other members of the commission headed by Supreme Court Justice Jim Hardesty agreed alternative, community-based programs could greatly reduce the growth of Nevada’s prison system.
But Hardesty said the scope of the commission’s investigations over the next 18 months will go far beyond parole and probation or in-prison drug and counseling programs. He said his recommendations will include discussion of major changes in Nevada sentencing practices, handling of mandatory sentences and judicial discretion.
Members also called for a review of statistical tools used to prepare presentence investigation reports that help determine what sentence a felon gets.
Larry Digesti said he was concerned P&P was using a scale called the Probation Success Probability tool to determine an offender’s potential success for probation which he, as a defense lawyer, didn’t even know existed.
P&P Chief John Gonska said he sees no reason why defense lawyers shouldn’t know about it and receive copies.
Skolnik said the 2007 Legislature passed AB510, doubling good-time credits and changing requirements to get inmates out sooner. The goal is to stem the record-breaking growth of Nevada’s prison population. But Skolnik, Parole Board Chairman Dorla Salling and Gonska all advised the group they don’t yet know exactly how many inmates will expire their sentence or become eligible for parole earlier because of that legislation. Skolnik’s best estimate was about 1,200 inmates will become eligible but Gonska said he doesn’t yet know how many parolees will expire their sentence when the retroactive good-time credits are added on.
The commission members agreed they have to look into expanded mental health, drug and alcohol and education programs. Hardesty, a former district judge, and Clark County District Judge Douglas Herndon agreed as many as 80 percent of the criminal cases they deal with either directly or indirectly involved alcohol or drug issues.
Members said they would also look into parole and probation centers to help those out of prison with all sorts of issues from counseling to job hunting – an idea Salling said was tried – and was successful – in the 1990s but cut from the budget because of funding issues.
Gonska was asked to prepare an inventory of community resources and services now available to inmates as they are released.
Hardesty asked members of the commission to develop lists of the issues they want the commission to deal with before the next Legislature and to trade them among themselves before the next meeting in five to six weeks.
But commissioners agreed the most important reports at that meeting will come from parole, probation, the parole board and prison officials about the impact of AB510.
The commission is charged with developing recommendations for changes throughout the criminal justice system by September 2008. Those recommendations will be presented to the 2009 Legislature.
• Contact reporter Geoff Dornan at firstname.lastname@example.org or 687-8750.