CARSON CITY — Las Vegas attorney Kristina Wildeveld says Gov. Brian Sandoval passed up on an opportunity last week to save Nevada taxpayers $1.5 million over the next four years.
The money would have been saved had Sandoval, while serving on the state Board of Pardons Commissioners, voted to commute the sentence of inmate Jamie Hein, who is serving a 10- to 25-year sentence for second-degree murder.
Hein suffers from a genetically inherited medical condition, angioedema, which is costing Nevada taxpayers $38,000 a month for treatment while she is incarcerated. The condition involves the rapid swelling of deep layers of the skin.
Wildeveld said Hein has private medical insurance that would pay for her treatment if she was released or put on house arrest, an alternative that the Pardons Board discussed but voted not to explore on a narrow 5-4 vote.
Hein is ineligible now for house arrest because she was sentenced to a Category A felony which precludes the option. Category A felonies are the most serious crimes, and include kidnapping and sexual assault as well as murder.
With the decision of the Pardons Board not to move forward with Hein’s possible early release, Wildeveld said she will seek help in the Legislature to address the issue on a wider policy basis.
Wildeveld said Nevada law regarding residential confinement needs to be broadened to allow for the option for those with severe medical conditions or who are aged and not a threat to reoffend.
Because the Pardons Board declined to act in her favor, Hein won’t be parole eligible until 2017 and will continue to incur medical costs. She is receiving two infusions a week for her condition at a cost of $4,400 per treatment at the Florence McClure Women’s Correctional Center in Las Vegas.
The Nevada Board of Pardons has wide latitude under state law to deal with individual inmate cases that come before it. The board, which meets infrequently, can grant a full and unconditional pardon, a conditional pardon, deny a request or take no action. The board cannot commute a death sentence or life sentence without parole to a sentence that would allow for parole.
Hein was requesting that her sentence be commuted to the time she had already served so she could be released immediately.
Hein was convicted in 2007 of second-degree murder in the death of 36-year-old Timothy Herman. The medical costs were not a point of discussion by the board in denying clemency, which Hein sought based on her efforts to reform and good behavior while incarcerated. The denial came after some members of the Herman family objected to her early release. She has served 6.5 years of her sentence.
While the Pardons Board vote was specific to Hein, it has brought attention to the issue of prison medical costs. Medical costs are an issue for seriously ill inmates and for Nevada’s aging prison population.
Prison medical care in Nevada runs over $40 million a year and is almost entirely paid for with state tax revenues. Ten years ago the prisons medical budget was about $32 million a year.
Sen. Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said addressing Nevada’s aging and ill prison population is a priority for him for the 2015 session.
It will be a focus of the Advisory Committee on the Administration of Justice, a panel of lawmakers, law enforcement officials and members of the judiciary, which is meeting during this interim period, he said.
“I will be looking at proposing a Board of Commutation,” Segerblom said. “We will also look at changing some of the B felonies that are basically nonviolent offences that have people serving way too long.”
Category B felonies include burglary and maintaining a drug house and many other drug-related offenses.
Criminal sentences were increased by the Nevada Legislature in the 1990s, but the longer terms have not generated any benefit, Segerblom said.
“It costs us $20,000 a year per inmate, and with the inmate population aging, people over 65 are just sitting there,” he said.
Mary-Sarah Kinner, spokeswoman for Sandoval, said any changes to Nevada’s residential confinement or early release rules would first need careful examination and study.
“While the issue of medically costly inmate populations was a topic at last Monday’s Pardons Board meeting, it is premature to be considering changes to Nevada’s residential confinement or early release rules,” she said Friday. “The governor does not believe that medical costs should be the determining factor in the release of a violent offender.”
The American Civil Liberties Union, in a report released last year, estimated that more than $16 billion is spent annually locking up hundreds of thousands of relatively low-risk prisoners who are 50 years of age and older.
The report found that Nevada’s percentage of state and federal prisoners over the age of 50 was the nation’s sixth highest at 17.2 percent.
According to numbers that the state of Nevada supplied to the national ACLU, Nevada had 2,193 prisoners over the age of 50, almost as many as Massachusetts, a state with more than twice the total population.
“Extremely disproportionate sentencing policies, fueled by the ‘tough on crime’ and ‘war on drugs’ movements, have turned our prisons into nursing homes, and taxpayers are footing the bill,” said Inimai Chettiar, the national ACLU advocacy and policy counsel.
Contact Capital Bureau reporter Sean Whaley at firstname.lastname@example.org or 775-687-3900. Follow him on Twitter @seanw801.