A year ago, Clark County officials launched a program to speed up the time from arrest to court for lower-risk defendants who otherwise might have sat in jail for days if they could not afford to post bail.
Since then, officials say, there has been a promising correlation: Not only have the population and average length of stay declined at the Clark County Detention Center, but fewer people are being charged with new crimes while their case is pending.
Under the Initial Appearance Court program, started in January 2019 at Las Vegas Justice Court, defendants who may have waited three days to see a judge after an arrest have been appearing in as little as 12 hours. Twice per day, seven days a week, including holidays, defendants are having one-stop custody status reviews and probable cause hearings — proceedings that previously occurred separately and less frequently.
“I think of it very favorably,” said Justice of the Peace Joe Bonaventure, who presides over the program and had been heavily involved in its setup. “Anecdotally, I really think it’s a more efficient system than we used to do.”
But perhaps the most significant implication of the program, officials say, is that defendants without means to post bail may return more quickly to home, family and work. Release options apart from bail could include a written promise to return to court as well as electronic monitoring.
“I don’t want to be overdramatic, but you’re changing somebody’s life if all of a sudden they’re not losing their job, they’re not losing their apartment,” said Public Defender Darin Imlay, whose staff is charged with representing the neediest defendants. “The snowball effect is huge.”
Officials noted that speeding up the process hasn’t changed criteria for who might be released, with risk assessments still being used to identify individuals who pose threats to public safety.
Stats show dent in jail overcrowding
County officials said spending less time in jail lowers the risk of recidivism, which they said explains the dip in the re-arrest rate year over year. In 2018, 14 percent of defendants received a new charge before their existing case was resolved, the county said. Last year only 8.8 percent did.
Meanwhile, the average length of stay at the jail fell from 20.1 days to 17.9 over the same period, according to the county. And the average daily inmate population dropped by 74 inmates to 3,706, despite a nearly 10 percent increase in bookings year over year, which officials attributed to a booming population and more police.
The welcome decline comes as the jail has been roiled by a shortage of corrections officers in recent years, causing overtime pay to soar and preventing county officials from adding as many officers in the jails and on the streets as they say they would like.
“The most expensive room in Las Vegas is not at the Bellagio, MGM, it’s not even on the Las Vegas Strip,” Bonaventure said. “It’s at the Clark County Detention Center.”
Unfair, ineffective bail practices
In October 2018, the Metropolitan Police Department, which administers the jail, received a $700,000 grant through the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to reduce overcrowding by 20 percent within two years.
The Criminal Justice Coordinating Council applied for the grant and, through that application process, also identified issues that led to jail overcrowding, including unfair and ineffective bail practices. In 2017, low-risk defendants spent an average of 58 days in custody, according to Metro.
Initial Appearance Court is also spearheaded by the coordinating council, a consortium of officials from Las Vegas Justice Court, the district attorney’s and public defender’s offices, the County Commission, Metro and others.
The council started five years ago, and Initial Appearance Court is its first major milestone, officials said.
“This is an example of all the stakeholders coming together and working together towards a common goal,” District Attorney Steve Wolfson said.
The new program has expanded initial appearance proceedings to 365 days per year. No longer does someone arrested after noon on a Friday have to wait until Monday to see a judge, or even a day later if Monday falls on a holiday.
But the program has done more than that.
The DA’s office is now also screening cases earlier, denying them when warranted, and the public defender’s office is meeting with clients prior to a hearing, which is expected to occur within 12 to 24 hours after the arrest. Immediate negotiations are possible between the prosecution and defense, and a judge conducts reviews in open court to determine probable cause instead of doing so in their chambers.
“It was a significant cultural change and a change in the processes,” Bonaventure said.
While the program has created additional staffing burdens to the court and DA and public defender’s offices, the county’s top prosecutor said it has been worth it.
“That’s saving days in jail by the hundreds,” Wolfson said, adding that it equated to “hundreds of thousands” of taxpayer dollars.
Officials said the program, modeled after others in cities across the U.S., was long overdue in Las Vegas.
“We are a 24-hour town,” Bonaventure said.