Assembly panel looks at 'category B' felonies bill

CARSON CITY -- There is a glut of felons in Nevada prisons, arrested for stealing food from Walmart or clothes from T.J. Maxx, for example, who are charged with felony burglary that carries a sentence of one to 10 years in prison, according to state attorneys.

A bill discussed Wednesday before the Assembly Judiciary Committee would make these nonviolent, "category B" felons eligible for earlier hearings with the Nevada Board of Parole Commissioners, potentially letting them out before they serve the minimum sentence and saving the state hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"We want to focus our resources on the serious crimes," said Orrin Johnson of the Washoe County public defender office. "We don't want Nevada to be in the situation California was a few years ago, where they were literally letting violent offenders into the public because they didn't have room (in the prisons)."

Under AB136, sponsored by the Judiciary Committee, people with nonviolent, nonsexual, nonweapons-related felonies could earn credits for participating in rehabilitation or education programs, or by demonstrating good behavior. The credits would put them on a fast track for a hearing before the parole board.

About 600 prisoners would be immediately eligible for a hearing, according to parole board Chairwoman Connie Bisbee. Currently, 61 percent of people who come before the parole board are granted an early release.

Johnson's examples of the felony burglaries that carry at least a year in prison included a man who stole $7.18 of deli meat from a Walmart, a mentally ill man who set a small fire at a drugstore greeting card display, and a man who was caught stealing a flashlight and an iPod adapter out of a vehicle.

"This is costing us a ton of money," Johnson said.

But Kristin Erickson of the Nevada District Attorney's Association said there are still unanswered questions about the bill, such as whether a felon could be considered for the credits if he had a weapon on his person, but did not use it during the crime.

Brett Kandt of the Nevada attorney general's office asked legislators to "remember the victims in this process."

"Victims have certain rights," Kandt said. "We have an obligation ... to inform victims about what a true minimum sentence could be."

Bill proponents assured legislators that the credits system was not a "get out of jail free" card, and that the parole board would assess each case individually to determine whether the prisoner deserved an early release.

"It just accelerates the time that they come before the board," Bisbee said. "What is really important is that there's a fiscal effect."

The Judiciary Committee will work further on the bill before taking a vote.