Nevada judges ask for more flexibility in sentencing
Judges including the Chief Justice of Nevada’s Supreme Court told lawmakers Tuesday inflexible laws mandating harsh minimum sentences and doubling prison time for using anything that could be considered a weapon need to be thrown out.
Chief Justice Bob Rose told the legislative committee studying Nevada’s sentencing, that under existing law, even a shoe and a shoelace have been defined as deadly weapons.
And mandatory minimum sentences, he said, eliminate the judge’s ability to “use his or her judgment to truly make the punishment fit the crime.”
Former Clark County District Attorney and now District Judge Stu Bell also urged for more discretion for judges. He said he opposed mandatory minimum sentences even as a district attorney.
“If you trust your judges, you should give them discretion,” he said. “If you don’t trust your judges, you should get rid of them and get some judges you trust.”
Rose said guidelines are appropriate, but that judges should have the power to deviate from them for good cause.
“I’ve always thought that advisory guidelines are a good thing, but I’d like to see a judge be permitted to depart from them if he gives good reason.”
He said mandatory minimums are especially harsh when combined with the deadly weapon rule which, in Nevada, doubles the minimum sentence for a crime.
“The deadly weapon enhancement has resulted in many many very long sentences in Nevada,” he said.
He said it is especially problematic because the Legislature has decided anything that can be used to harm someone can be considered a deadly weapon. He said a man’s shoes were ruled a deadly weapon because he kicked his robbery victim and a shoelace was ruled deadly because it was used to choke a victim. Rose said he believes deadly weapon should be narrowly defined as a firearm, knife or something “inherently dangerous.”
“Doubling the sentence when it’s a string or pair of shoes seems too harsh to me. The practical result is that the vast majority of serious crimes are doubled because of the way the deadly enhancement is interpreted and applied in this state,” Rose said.
Clark County District Judge Nancy Saita said she “wholeheartedly” agrees.
“We often times are forced to impose sentences that are not appropriate,” she said.
And Saita said the mandatory sentence sometimes isn’t enough, such as one she handled Monday in which the law requires probation for a drug offense. She said the defendant “performed miserably” in the drug court, even attempting to assault someone.
She said she was compelled to put him on probation, but immediately brought him up for a hearing and revoked that probation, putting the defendant in jail.
Washoe District Judge Jerry Polaha added his support to the cause as well.
The judges also said Nevada needs some system for reviewing disproportionate sentences imposed for very similar crimes. Rose said the Supreme Court has declined to review that issue, partly because of the caseload already before it.
Rose said an intermediate appellate court between district court and the Supreme Court would be an appropriate place to put responsibility for reviewing whether sentences are appropriate.
He said, as a former Washoe County district attorney and former district judge, he is not against long sentences or even the death penalty.
“What I do object to are mandatory minimum sentences that, in some cases, prevent a district judge from tailoring a sentence to fit the offense and the broadly defined deadly weapon enhancement that doubles an already stiff sentence in most serious crimes,” he said. “The end result is that we see many very, very long sentences assessed, but with no mechanism to review them.
“In my judgment, this prevents the state from making the punishment fit the crime.”
— Contact reporter Geoff Dornan at email@example.com or 687-8750.