Legislation aims to change how decisions on parole are made

CARSON CITY — A Nevada lawmaker testified Thursday that the main consideration in granting paroles to inmates should be their potential to stay out of trouble and contribute positively to society once they’re back on the street.

Assembly Bill 424, proposed by Assemblyman Harvey Munford, D-Las Vegas, and backed by inmate advocates and family members, would change the state Parole Board’s current system of considering severity of an inmate’s crime as a major factor in parole decisions.

Also under the bill, decisions to release inmates with low-level felonies who follow prison rules and aren’t seen as threats to society would shift to the state Department of Corrections director — a plan opposed by the current director, Howard Skolnik.

Munford said corrections directors are better suited to grant paroles for such inmates because they deal with them on a daily basis and can gauge better how they would behave upon release.

The lawmaker said criminals need to pay for their crimes, but parole procedures focus on punishment and don’t allow enough time to consider all aspects of an inmate’s parole eligibility.

“Low-level offenders, who are not found to be a great risk to public safety, would be able to come home to their families and be productive members of society,” Munford said, adding his bill would save the state money by reducing the number of inmates behind bars.

Assembly Corrections, Parole and Probation Chairman William Horne, D-Las Vegas, questioned the plan, saying conflicts of interest might arise if prison staffers play direct roles in inmate parole determination.

“Wouldn’t it become problematic if your jailer has the keys to your jail cell, and they get to say when you leave or not leave? It becomes pretty open for abuse,” Horne said.

Munford replied that inmates would act in their own best interests if they knew jail staff played such a role in determining when inmates would be released.

“Well, on the other hand, they can look at it and say, ‘If they’re the ones who are going to determine if I’m going to leave, then I’m going to be on my best behavior,’ ” Munford said.

Other parole process changes in the bill include removing a requirement that photographs of victims’ injuries be forwarded to the Parole Board. Also, victims of inmates up for parole wouldn’t have to be notified of planned parole hearings.

Skolnik said prison system standards only permit prison staffers to give the Parole Board factual information about inmates and not recommendations regarding potential inmate success after release. He said correction and parole staffs do two different things.

“Our people are geared to success inside the institution, Skolnik said. “The skills required by an individual to succeed in prison are not the same skills they need to succeed in the community.”

Skolnik also objected to removing victim participation from the parole process, calling it “troubling.” He also said giving staff the large responsibility of determining an inmate’s future behavior further burdens employees, adding there is only one case worker for every 125 inmates.

Don Hinton of the Spartacus Project, a Nevada prison-reform organization, supported the bill, saying lawmakers must address Parole Board problems and should adopt processes similar to other states where inmates are given firm sentences in 90 days.

“This system we have in Nevada is foul, is corrupted, is rotten,” Hinton said.

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