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Cash bail debate roils Carson City hearing Thursday

A group of lawmakers hopes to reduce Nevada’s reliance on the cash bail system for people awaiting trial.

Assembly Bill 325, which was heard Thursday in the Assembly Judiciary Committee, would overhaul the state’s bail system by making expensive cash bail the last resort in most cases, bill sponsor Ozzie Fumo, D-Las Vegas, said.

“This bill is not intended to end cash bail in Nevada,” Fumo said while presenting the bill. “All we’re looking for the judges to do is to look at cash, or to monetary conditions of release, as the last alternative. Not the first.”

The marathon four-hour hearing saw criminal defense attorneys and criminal justice reform advocates debate the merits of the reliance on cash bail with prosecutors, law enforcement and bail bondsmen themselves.

Underscoring the heated emotions both sides have for the bill, a bail bondsman attempted to have a supporter of the bill arrested by Legislative Police in Las Vegas after learning the person had a misdemeanor warrant.

Supporters of the bill, including Las Vegas defense attorneys Tom Pitaro — who is Fumo’s law partner — and Robert Langford — who ran unsuccessfully for district attorney in Clark County last year — argued that people arrested for nonviolent misdemeanor crimes are often required to post thousands of dollars in bail or be forced to stay in jail until their trial, which disproportionately affects people of color and the poor.

“The poor stay in jail, and the rich can get out,” Pitaro said.

Incarceration before conviction

And the system that keeps people in jail, Pitaro said, goes against the basic assumption that underlies the American criminal justice system: People are assumed innocent until proven guilty.

“That presumption of innocence fundamentally means that we do not punish people for crimes until they are convicted,” Pitaro said. “What is happening with the bail system is that incarceration is coming before conviction, and that’s the fundamental issue we’ve been dealing with.”

The bill drew a broad group of supporters that included public defenders, the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, the Culinary Union, the Mass Liberation Project as well as Americans for Prosperity, a conservative Koch Network-funded organization.

Holly Welborn, policy director for the ACLU of Nevada, said the bill is modeled to follow New Jersey’s bail reforms.

New Jersey’s reform went into effect in late 2016. Within six months, the state saw its pretrial jail population reduced by nearly one-fifth.

Law enforcement representatives, district attorneys and bail bondsmen all expressed their opposition to the bill.

Carson City District Attorney Jason Woodbury said that he was concerned about the bill’s requirement that a pretrial release hearing be held within 48 hours of a defendant’s initial appearance in court and expressed worry that victims’ rights are not addressed in the language.

“The logisitical requirements of the hearing imposed by the bill are frankly impossible,” Woodbury said.

But Woodbury added that he doesn’t want his opposition to the bill to be taken as opposition to the idea of bail reform, as long as public safety and the voice of crime victims are taken into consideration.

“Scientific and technological advances provide new opportunities to fine-tune and improve that balance between the presumption of innocence and public safety,” Woodbury said.

Incident in Las Vegas

At one point during the hearing, which was videoconferenced to the Sawyer Building in Las Vegas where several people testified, a bail bondsman approached Legislative Police demanding that one of the bill’s supporters be arrested, Legislative Counsel Bureau director Rick Combs said in an email.

The officer informed the Las Vegas city marshal’s office, which confimed the warrant but told the officer that it would not be sending anyone to the state office building to serve it.

Combs said it was a situation that Legislative Police “had not contemplated and had not included in our training.”

Combs said he does not think the officer did anything wrong but said that they will advise their officers going forward that the person complaining about warrants should take their issue to the proper authorities and that “we will not be taking any action with regards to reports on misdemeanor warrants.”

Combs said that police never threatened to arrest anyone in attendance for the hearing.

Contact Capital Bureau Chief Colton Lochhead at clochhead@reviewjournal.com or 775-461-3820. Follow @ColtonLochhead on Twitter.

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