Former inmate calls for sweeping changes in prison rules and parole system
A former Nevada prison inmate on Monday called for sweeping changes he argued would get rid of “ridiculous sentences” and significant increases in rehabilitation and programs to make it possible for an inmate to survive in society.
John Witherow, who was released from prison after serving a long sentence as a habitual criminal, said the discretionary parole system that gives the parole board total control over release decisions should be eliminated, that all inmates should qualify for good time credits and life sentences eliminated as well.
“Lets not give them ridiculous sentences of 300 or 400 years,” he told the Commission on the Administration of Justice. “Let’s get realistic.”
Witherow said no felon should be given more than 60 years, which he said, realistically, is a life sentence.
He said the criminal justice process in the U.S. and Nevada is the most imposing in the world.
“We have 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the prison population.”
He said Nevada is among the highest in the U.S. with 724 inmates per 100,000 population.
He said one problem is at any parole hearing if a victim appears and says he or she doesn’t want the inmate released, the board denies parole.
“The victim’s special privilege should end at the sentencing process,” he said. “After the sentence is imposed and the victim has had their say, we should be looking at rehabilitation.”
“What are they doing to rehabilitate them? What are they doing to give them opportunities?” Witherow asked. “What about a job? What about a place to live?”
Witherow said that should start with job training and other services inside prison to prepare inmates for success after they are released.
“Let’s do something to help a person when they get out,” Witherow said calling for classes that give inmates trade skills.
“That’s where you’re going to change your recidivism rate, not by locking them up.”
And reducing recidivism, Witherow said, would save the state millions by reducing the prison population.
He was followed by inmate advocate Tonja Brown who charged the parole board and prison officials routinely deny parole to inmates who file lawsuits over their conviction and sentences. She also said there are still lingering effects from the computer conversion in 2007 that messed up inmate convictions and sentences. In her brother’s case, she said, some 10 years of his records are missing because of that computer problem.
The commission took no action Monday. The body headed by Supreme Court Justice Jim Hardesty is expected to formalize recommendations on a variety of issues at its October meeting.