Official says recession puts dent in crime

CARSON CITY — There is something good about a recession after all.

Crime has fallen, and the state won’t have to spend as much building prisons over the next nine years.

State Corrections Director Howard Skolnik said Thursday that the crime rate has fallen because the recession has caused more people to stay home and watch what is going on in their neighborhoods.

“We have ‘cocooning’ where people are at home and the doors are locked and it is harder to be a victim,” Skolnik told a joint Senate-Assembly budget committee. “The other thing is people are losing jobs. You have a parent at home where you didn’t have a parent before.”

He said crime also fell during the Great Depression and other recessions.

“There are people who are leaving the state because of the economy and inability to get jobs who might have turned to crime,” he said. “Historically when the economy picks up, so will crime.”

Skolnik also attributed the crime drop to an increase in the number of police officers in Clark County.

Nevada prisons house about 12,700 inmates, with another 400 in restitution centers.

Skolnik said the prison system is about 720 below budgeted projections for the inmate population.

He told legislators that the prison population will grow by 1 percent to 1.5 percent annually during the next couple of years, compared with 3 percent growth rates in the past.

Because of the stagnant growth, Skolnik has reduced the long-term projections for new prison facilities needed over the next nine years. But he still wants to close Nevada State Prison in Carson City, while building Prison 8 near Indian Springs, about 35 miles northwest of Las Vegas, and eventually Prison 9, for female inmates, also in Indian Springs.

State Public Works Board Manager Gus Nunez said because of the slow growth in the prison population, the state will have to spend $762 million on new prison construction between now and 2018, compared with an earlier $980 million projection.

They expect the inmate population to climb by more than 4000 by then.

“As long as the public wants to be safe, they will have to pay more for that safety,” said Sen. Bob Coffin, D-Las Vegas.

But legislators expressed concern about why the state needs a new prison at Indian Springs when the Gibbons administration wants to close the 140-year-old Nevada State Prison.

“How can you talk about needing a prison when we apparently have one we don’t need?” asked Assemblywoman Debbie Smith, D-Sparks.

Skolnik said he has plans to make Jean a women’s prison. He plans to convert the existing women’s prison in North Las Vegas into an intake center and a prison for older inmates.

In response to questions from legislators, he and Nunez agreed to prepare information that they say will show the state would save money by closing the Nevada State Prison and building Prison 8.

Skolnik said there are good reasons for the state to have more than enough beds available for inmates.

He said that on Monday, the main beam in the culinary area at the women’s prison separated, possible because of a magnitude 3.0 earthquake. Building inspectors closed the area, and Skolnik said he prepared plans to evacuate the prison and move inmates to other facilities.

“If we had filled every bed, that would have been a problem,” he added.

The beam has been shored up and the culinary facility was reopened.

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at evogel@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3901.

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