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Panel calls for commission to set Nevada sentencing guidelines for criminal offenses

CARSON CITY — A criminal justice advisory panel agreed Tuesday to recommend that state lawmakers establish a special commission to set statewide sentencing guidelines for crimes.

Creation of a sentencing commission, which would work to bring consistency to sentencing practices statewide, was one of several recommendations of the Advisory Commission on the Administration of Justice for consideration by the 2017 Nevada Legislature.

The commission, led by state Supreme Court Justice James Hardesty, has met numerous times since the last legislative session to scrutinize Nevada’s criminal justice system and recommend reforms.

Hardesty envisioned a sentencing commission modeled after one adopted in Connecticut that considers a crime’s severity and a defendant’s criminal history. Judges could deviate from recommended sentencing guidelines but would have to explain their reasoning, which would be subject to possible appellate review.

He said it would make the criminal justice system fairer and reduce racial disparity.

“This is something that we can do now,” Hardesty said. “This is something the Legislature can do now.”

He noted a previous study that showed a wide gap in sentences around the state. Some judges, he said, sentenced defendants to prison 30 percent of the time and other defendants more than 60 percent of the time for similar crimes.

After approving that recommendation, the advisory panel took no action on another matter to reclassify some Category B felonies to lesser crimes, opting to leave that matter to the proposed sentencing commission.

The advisory panel — composed of judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, legislators and others — also recommended allowing inmates to initiate DNA testing at their own expense to defend themselves.

Under existing statute, a judge must authorize such testing.

Tonya Brown, an inmate advocate, made the proposal during public comment at a previous commission meeting.

Chuck Callaway, representing Metro police in Clark County, opposed the measure, saying the commission did not thoroughly vet it and should not take action.

“In my mind, recommendations that come from this body are intended to carry some weight,” Callaway said. He added that a similar bill failed a few years go in the Legislature, and he was uncomfortable making a recommendation with limited input.

His concerns were shared by Attorney General Adam Laxalt and Douglas County District Attorney Mark Jackson, among others.

But state Sen. Aaron Ford, D-Las Vegas, called the proposal a “no-brainer,” saying that if DNA tests are being used to implicate the guilty, they should also be used to exonerate the innocent.

Assemblyman Elliot Anderson, D-Las Vegas, agreed.

“What’s wrong with seeking the truth?” Anderson asked.

Commission recommendations will be forwarded to the Legislature, either through letters of support or bill draft requests.

Contact Sandra Chereb at schereb@reviewjournal.com or 775-461-3821. Follow @SandraChereb on Twitter.

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