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Nevada lawmakers hear debate on criminal justice reform bill

Updated March 8, 2019 - 4:47 pm

CARSON CITY — Prosecutors and law enforcement sparred with public defenders, judges and advocates Friday over a massive bill aimed at overhauling Nevada’s criminal justice system.

Supporters of Assembly Bill 236 say it will significantly reduce Nevada’s prison population and recidivism rates, while saving the state hundreds of millions of dollars over the next decade.

But opponents of the changes argued that the bill ignores public safety concerns and disregards the rights of crime victims.

“The cost of doing nothing is unacceptable. It is well past time for Nevada to be smart on crime,” Assemblyman Steve Yeager, D-Las Vegas, said in presenting the bill during Friday’s four-hour hearing in the Assembly Judiciary Committee. The committee took no action on the bill.

The proposals stem from a legislative report that was released in January that recommended 25 wide-ranging policy reforms to the state’s criminal justice laws, including the removal of mandatory minimum sentences for several crimes, giving judges more discretion in sentencing, adding tiers to burglary crimes, reclassifying several felonies, and changing the felony theft threshold from $650 to $2,000.

From 2009 to 2016, prison populations in the U.S. dropped by 7 percent. But Nevada has seen the number of prisoners increase by 7 percent from 2009 to 2017, and the average prison sentence has increased by 20 percent.

Prison population in the state is expected to top 15,000 by 2028, and the state’s costs are expected to increase by $770 million in that same time period.

The bill, Yeager said, would avert 89 percent of the expected prison growth in the state in that time and save the state $640 million over the next decade.

“If we don’t make changes, we will continue to see our prison population grow and continue to pay into a system that cycles people in and out,” Yeager said.

But opponents, who included law enforcement representatives and district attorneys from counties across the state, said the proposals were ignoring public safety concerns by reducing criminal sentences and increasing the thresholds for drug and property crimes to be considered felonies.

Chuck Callaway, a lobbyist for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, said such changes would make Nevada seem like it’s taking crime less seriously, which he argued would discourage people from traveling to Las Vegas.

But Callaway said he wants to work on the language of the bill with Yeager to find a balance between public safety and reform.

“I think we can come to a happy medium that helps our criminal justice system and makes positive reform, but at the same time doesn’t throw public safety out with the bath water,” Callaway said.

Nevada Supreme Court Justice James Hardesty, who also helped present the bill, countered in his closing remarks that the current system’s balance is precisely the problem.

“I would suggest that the criminal justice system in Nevada is out of balance, and I think it’s time for the Nevada Legislature to look for ways for balance to be restored,” he said.

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

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