Prison boom

Nevada currently has a prison population of 13,000. The system is designed to hold around 9,000.

"It doesn't take much more than that to force the system into a meltdown," said Gov. Jim Gibbons last week. "We have reached our limit, and we're going to have to start doing the things that were put off for years."

The governor took a tour on Thursday of the Warm Springs Correctional Center in Carson City. Inmates are housed two each in the facility's 12-by-12 cells. The prison will soon be 17 percent over capacity.

The governor has proposed spending $300 million on new prison construction over the next two years. He also wants lawmakers to hire an additional 337 corrections officers at a cost of $30 million.

OK. Locking up bad guys is a necessity.

But how many people taking up space in Nevada's jails and prisons are actually habitual offenders or violent predators? And how many rotting in their cells, costing taxpayers thousands of dollars a year, were convicted of victimless or nonviolent offenses?

If Nevada mirrors the national trend, the answers might startle you. Between 1978 and 1997, the percentage of violent offenders in American prisons actually declined from 57 percent to 47 percent, according to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. That trend continues today.

The prison boom has, in fact, been fueled by an increase in incarcerations for nonviolent drug offenders. The situation is even more stark among females. The center estimates that 85 percent of the women behind bars in this country are there for drug-related crimes.

Clearly, if Gov. Gibbons hopes to get a handle on Nevada's prison crisis, he must embrace creative alternatives.

State Supreme Court Justice James Hardesty is leading an effort to release up to 500 illegal aliens serving time in Nevada for nonviolent offenses. The plan is to deport them once they leave incarceration.

In addition, some lawmakers have proposed expanding good-time credits so inmates who exhibit good behavior can be freed early -- but that, of course, might lead to the premature release of offenders convicted of more serious crimes.

Gov. Gibbons said last week that he's open to re-examining the state's sentencing rules. "The one thing I won't do is let violent prisoners out early," he said. "The nonviolent ones, we need to rethink how expensive it is to keep them here."

That's an encouraging start. But does the governor have the courage to pay the concept more than lip service?

He'd better. The alternative is not sustainable.