Some North Las Vegas judges say a plan to cut costs by merging the city's jail with Las Vegas' is violating the rights of inmates and putting public safety at risk.
Court operation issues, including errors with booking information and paperwork, have some inmates staying longer at the jail than they should and others being released too early, according to North Las Vegas Justice Court Chief Judge Natalie Tyrrell and Judge Stephen Dahl.
"I think if there would have been more planning time or preparation, maybe it wouldn't have been such a bumpy transition as it has been," Tyrrell said. "I think this was (city officials) rushing into this as a way to resolve their financial problems. They rushed into this whole arrangement too quickly."
The allegations come six weeks after North Las Vegas city officials closed the jail and moved inmates to the Las Vegas facility, at Stewart Avenue and Mojave Road. Police estimate the plan will save North Las Vegas $11 million this fiscal year and $16 million each of the next four years. The five-year plan is costing the city about $16 million.
North Las Vegas also is paying Las Vegas to house up to 315 inmates, $25 a day for each male inmate and $110 for each female inmate. The per-inmate costs are designed to cover medical, food and laundry expenses. It's not likely, but that could cost North Las Vegas another $26 million if every bed is filled every day for five years.
North Las Vegas laid off about 100 jail employees as a result of the merger, keeping about 45 to staff a section of the Las Vegas facility. The layoffs represent the majority of cost savings, with additional savings coming from fewer medical costs. North Las Vegas is operating one wing of the jail, staffing it with its own employees. That wing houses male inmates. Female inmates are housed with Las Vegas' female inmates and are cared for by Las Vegas jail employees.
North Las Vegas Police Chief Joseph Chronister said he is investigating every complaint brought forward.
"We are doing everything necessary to ensure the safety, security and rights of all of those people who are incarcerated," Chronister said. "That is absolutely first and foremost on our minds. We take the allegations made seriously. We take any concerns seriously. And we're vetting them."
In some instances, there was incorrect information, Chronister said. He gave an example of an inmate who was said to have bailed out the night before and was held an extra day. He said the inmate actually had bailed out that morning, according to jail records.
The jail closure is not ideal, Chronister said. But he said "public safety has not been diminished in any way."
"One of the things getting lost in this whole transition is the difficulty of us having to take the extraordinary measure as a department and as a city to go the direction that we've gone," Chronister said. "This wasn't a tweaking. This was an absolute overhaul. I believe we're doing a good job to the best of our ability. We're not perfect."
City Manager Tim Hacker said the decision was made quickly to cope with the budget crisis.
"We can't afford to do business the way we've done business in the past. Our community wants people to be treated well when they're incarcerated but not at the expense of losing every other program or amenity."
As for complaints about how inmates are being treated, Las Vegas spokesman Jace Radke said that city has not received any specific facts about any civil rights violations and is looking into the allegations.
Overtime costs for Las Vegas jail employees have increased, but city officials said they took that into consideration when hammering out the merger contract. They expect those numbers to decline.
Las Vegas spent $1.3 million in fiscal year 2011 on overtime costs, $1.5 million in fiscal year 2012 and has paid out $338,860 in overtime in the first three pay periods of fiscal year 2013.
Tyrrell said the courts rely on paperwork submitted within a 48-hour window to determine probable cause to hold someone in custody. In some cases, judges are receiving paperwork after that time frame.
"If North Las Vegas picks someone up on a murder case, and I don't have that probable cause paperwork forwarded to me within 48 hours, I have to let that person go," Tyrrell said. "That's constitutional. That's a public safety issue. There's not anything I can do differently."
Tyrrell also complained about the lack of video equipment to communicate with inmates at the Las Vegas facility. North Las Vegas officials can only access video equipment when Las Vegas officials are done using it. Chronister said the video equipment has been purchased for the Las Vegas facility but is on back order.
Now, inmates are transported to her courtroom - about 3.5 miles one way - sometimes without enough corrections officers to do the job, Tyrrell said.
"So they are transporting all these bodies again with few corrections officers, and that is a concern to me just as a citizen," she said. "Any time you're transporting prisoners, there's always a threat something could go wrong. This is now happening on a daily basis. ... Why do we need all these prisoners out on our streets every day? It's not safe."
Dahl has been more publicly outspoken than Tyrrell, suggesting City Council members spend some time in jail to witness its issues since the merger.
"There's not one argument you can make that justifies holding one person in jail one day longer than they should have been because they don't want to invest the resources to do it right," Dahl said. "There is no constitutional requirement to arrest people, but when we do, there's a constitutional requirement that we treat them properly."
North Las Vegas Municipal Judge Catherine Ramsey said her court isn't experiencing the same issues since the merger. Rather than detention center workers recording booking information into a database, court workers now enter the information, which has resolved any paperwork issues, she said. Court clerks send a list to the jail every day to confirm which inmates are to be released based on judges' orders to ensure inmates are released at the correct time.
"We get confirmation of which inmates are to be released and verified they've received it," Ramsey said. "So they don't get lost in the shuffle."
Chronister said some judges appeared to be reluctant to change. They are not giving the plan a chance or are not "trying to be more of a problem solver in this and became somewhat angry because things weren't the way they were the day before," he said.
Mayor Shari Buck said she was "shocked" by Dahl's behavior toward council members at a recent meeting.
"It was very unjudicial for him to do that," Buck said of Dahl's public confrontation. "The council was not made aware of the allegations" before the meeting.
Buck also took issue with Dahl emailing his complaints to her assistant rather than contacting her or other council members directly.
In an email to judges and Buck's assistant, Dahl complained about a North Las Vegas inmate who was arrested on a felony warrant July 15 and sat in the Las Vegas jail "without legal representation or being brought before a judge" for 17 days. Dahl dismissed the charges and ordered the man released from custody.
The next day, Dahl wrote a follow-up email saying:
"Even though I ordered that he be released yesterday afternoon, he was still in custody this morning. (What's one more night in jail?) I'll take care of that today. We'll also be referring that gentleman to a few attorneys who know what to do with this type of situation. They will probably also be interested in the, at least, three other times something like this has happened in the last few weeks."
Dahl released seven inmates one day because their probable cause paperwork was submitted too late. One inmate was being held on a felony charge of domestic violence strangulation.
"There are many instances where someone has been arrested on a warrant and the jail has not informed the court it has this person, and they sit in jail for a week or more before we find out and get them to court," Dahl said. "Or people are posting bail and still not getting out of jail for a few days. They've done everything legally they're supposed to do to get out of jail, and it's not working. There's no excuse for that."
Candy bar wrappers and leaves blow through the hallways at the empty North Las Vegas Detention Center near Las Vegas Boulevard and Civic Center Drive. Sunlight glints off coils of razor wire .
Capt. Heidi Campbell, who runs detention, keeps apologizing "for the mess" and explains the litter blows in through the open doors as workers clean, sort and organize what's left in the building. They're dealing with boxes of books, carts of paperwork that needs shredding and biohazard material - some inmates have needles on them when they're booked.
The jail held up to 1,000 inmates a few years ago. Now, the basketball courts and fitness equipment stand empty.
Cell doors are open in one dorm. Dozens of mattresses are stacked on bunks next to a pile of government issue flip flops in one cell. The lights are on and the air conditioning is still running, slightly, to keep it working, Campbell said.
The first signs of life come when about 30 inmates clad in orange jumpsuits and shackles file out of a video conference room after their Municipal Court hearings. Dark smudges on the brick wall in the back of the room are ghosts of inmates past, who rested their heads as they awaited their fate.
Once the video equipment arrives for the Las Vegas facility, that will mean fewer inmates to transport, Campbell said.
The judges aren't the only ones complaining.
Black Jack Bail Bonds owner Michial Taylor said the merger is complicating his workload and costing his business thousands of dollars each week.
Before the change, bail agents would exchange information with the North Las Vegas Detention Center by email for both municipal and justice court defendants. Now, they have to run between the marshal's office and the courts to post bonds and get receipts for filing fees. After hours, they deposit bonds and cash into a drop box at the marshal's office. Sometimes the cash and bonds go missing, causing confusion and delays, he said.
"When you call over there (to the jail) no one can give you an answer about anything," Taylor said. "They say whatever problems we got, we need to take them up with the mayor. They say call or email the mayor."
Taylor's office posted a $25,000 bond in one case. The defendant's attorney requested bail reduction, not knowing the family had already paid. The judge granted the request, reduced the bail to $3,000 and ordered the original bond voided. Taylor said his office lost $3,300 as a result. It's happening more frequently, he added.
"Nobody seems to know what's going on," Taylor said. "It is a mess."
Terri March, North Las Vegas Justice Court administrator, echoed those comments. She described it as a "very frustrating" situation that has become "a huge imposition" on her staff. Since the merger, March has been documenting phone and email complaints from judges, clerks and bail bondsmen, among others.
"They're spending extra time trying to make sure things are done right with phone calls and emails and faxes, and we're frequently getting erroneous paperwork that belong to Municipal Court," March said. "It's becoming our new normal that everything is a mess, and we have to try and fix it. It's been aggravating."
Contact reporter Kristi Jourdan at firstname.lastname@example.org or 383-0440.