Jail for 'petty' crimes

Hundreds of felons now sit in Nevada prisons -- serving sentences of one to 10 years on charges of "felony burglary" -- for offenses as minor as stealing food from Wal-Mart. A bill debated Wednesday before the Assembly Judiciary Committee would make these nonviolent, "category B" felons eligible for an earlier hearing with the Nevada Board of Parole.

"We want to focus our resources on the serious crimes," testified Orrin Johnson of the Washoe County public defender's 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."

Under Assembly Bill 136, offenders with nonviolent, nonsexual, non-weapons-related felonies such as burglary could earn credits for participating in rehabilitation or education programs, or by demonstrating good behavior. The credits would fast-track them to a hearing before the parole board.

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

But Mr. Johnson refers only to the government costs of incarceration, not to the costs borne by Nevada merchants who often fear they've been declared "fair game." Brett Kandt of the Nevada attorney general's office asked legislators to "remember the victims in this process."

Indeed, unless one has owned or worked at a retail store, it's hard to imagine the frustration of finding that yet another pair of expensive boots have walked out the door without payment. All this inventory shrinkage has to be passed along in consumer prices. A widespread belief that such crimes are "no big deal" contributes to all those empty storefronts out there.

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

As the state looks for ways to trim costs, AB136 is certainly worth a look. But perhaps the committee should consider adding an amendment, stipulating legal immunity for storekeepers and their employees who use force to catch or stop criminals in the act.

Law-abiding merchants should not live in fear for their safety and their livelihood; thieves should.