Special session may be needed to address problem with new law | NevadaAppeal.com

Special session may be needed to address problem with new law

The Advisory Commission on the Administration of Justice headed by Supreme Court Justice Jim Hardesty agreed Wednesday it will take a special legislative session to fix the new law designed to reduce prison overcrowding.

But rather than issue a call for that special session, they voted to have Hardesty first discuss the situation with Gov. Jim Gibbons, Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, and Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley, D-Las Vegas.

“The idea is to go to the governor and legislators first so we talk to them and don’t send them any mandates,” said Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto.

She said they may have other ways of solving the problem, which is that the Parole Board simply can’t handle proper hearings for the nearly 1,400 inmates who will become eligible for parole Oct. 1, when the new law takes effect.

The legislation, AB510, doubled good-time credits available to inmates and made other changes designed to get low-level and nonviolent offenders out of the prison system earlier.

That is double the number of hearings parole officials would face in October without the new law.

Parole Board Chairwoman Dorla Salling told the commission that in addition to doubling the number of inmates eligible for a hearing, the 2007 Legislature passed legislation putting more notice and open meeting requirements on how those hearings are held, which will make each of the hearings longer.

“There are just not enough hours in the day,” she said.

But it will create what Salling termed a “bubble” of inmates when it goes into effect.

Hardesty said the only realistic solution is to delay implementation of the new law three months until Jan. 1, but that only the Legislature can do that.

He said the overload on the Parole Board was not foreseen during the Legislature and was made worse by the fact the Department of Corrections computer system crashed when they converted from an old to new system, making it impossible until just this week to calculate which inmates now qualify for parole hearings.

“The ability of the Parole Board to handle that number of hearings is impractical and politically not responsible,” he said. “They would be forced to conduct hearings that would last no longer than 13 minutes.”

Salling and the others agreed the law requiring four of seven Parole Board members to vote on each inmate’s release should be changed to a panel system much like that used in the Supreme Court where a majority of a three member panel could decide. That too would require the Legislature to act.

The other issue Hardesty described as an emergency was the recommendation by consultant James F. Austin to monitor and strengthen the consistency of risk assessments prepared by corrections and parole and probation officials to guide the Parole Board in deciding whether to release an inmate. He told the commission the Parole Board, P&P and corrections don’t have the resources to provide the quality control needed in preparing those risk assessments.

P&P Chief John Gonska said it could take up to a year if sworn officers must be hired and trained to do those assessments.

Hardesty said that will require money to increase caseworkers in the prison system and officers at Parole and Probation, which they will also take up with the governor and lawmakers. That funding, however, could be provided by the Interim Finance Committee without needing a legislative session.

• Contact reporter Geoff Dornan at gdornan@nevadaappeal.com or 687-8750.