Gene Columbus: Pay to house criminals, or live with the alternative
For the Nevada Appeal
A recent Las Vegas Review-Journal survey found that more than half of respondents support raising taxes just enough to continue funding law enforcement services at the current level. Given our current situation, this is an exceptional show of support.
The public is understandably weary of budgetary shortfalls, shrinking services and growing debt. There is considerable clamor for reducing the footprint of government in our lives.
Some have suggested that this support does not necessarily extend to Corrections, which may be true. When police officers do their jobs, people see the flashing lights and watch the bad guys get dragged off to jail. When correctional officers do their jobs well, they are largely invisible to the public. After their trials, rapists, murderers, thieves and child molesters disappear behind the walls, and the public loses interest.
These individuals that a jury has decided are not fit for the streets do not disappear. They are housed en masse – approximately 13,000 of them in Nevada. None of these people are less dangerous or more benevolent. More often than not, the opposite is true. Prison at its best is loud, smelly and hostile. It is a gathering of the worst elements of society, and a place that most people do not care to visit, let alone work in.
Just the same, Nevada’s correctional officers are walking that beat every day, shoulder to shoulder with the same individuals the public cannot accept. For years, the Nevada Department of Corrections has been underfunded and understaffed.
We have worked with chronic shortages of staff and minimal attention to resources. Our current budget situation has exacerbated the problems.
Shortfalls in staffing have become critical as furloughs and elimination of overtime have driven the inmate-to-officer ratio ever higher.
Backed into a corner, the department has encouraged prison administrators to shut down more positions more often. Officers are left in housing units alone, sometimes without sufficient staff in the entire prison to respond to an emergency.
The Department of Corrections has no control over how many inmates it must accommodate or when they can be released. The prison population is determined solely by how the courts apply the rule of law that had been set down by public representatives. Locking up criminals does not fix the problem – it moves the problem off the streets. Society still must bear the cost of incarceration.
The courts and the Constitution guarantee that inmates receive humane treatment including meals, appropriate housing, medical care and some level of safety. If that cost is too much, we as a civil society should examine the alternative: Change the rule of law and accept these prisoners into our cities and neighborhoods.
• Gene Columbus of Carson City is president of the Nevada Corrections Association.