CARSON CITY — Told that the state’s prison population is lower than expected, members of a Senate-Assembly budget panel said Thursday that they would like a delay in new prison construction and an end to plans to shut down an old prison and an inmate camp.
Lawmakers commented after Corrections Director Howard Skolnik said the total of 12,689 inmates is 725 less than what had been projected in the $481 million, two-year prison system budget outlined in mid-January by Gov. Jim Gibbons.
Skolnik also said authorities in the Las Vegas and Reno areas, Nevada’s population centers, have advised him that crime rates are flat. That would factor into new inmate projections being prepared by prison system consultants.
Assemblywoman Kathy McClain, D-Las Vegas, the subcommittee chairwoman, said she would like to see "a little more thought" put into initial administration plans to shut down the Nevada State Prison in Carson City and an inmate camp near Tonopah and to build a new prison at Indian Springs, in Southern Nevada.
McClain was joined by Assembly members Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, and Pete Goicoechea, R-Eureka, in saying that the Tonopah camp should remain open.
"We’re all pretty convinced that’s not a good policy," said Leslie, adding that she also opposes the plan to close the medium-security prison in Carson City, which dates to the 1870s.
Skolnik said reasons for the inmate population not climbing as expected could include the addition of more police in Las Vegas, resulting in more crime prevention, a drop in population in Southern Nevada and an economic downturn that has cut into opportunities for criminals.
"Because of the economic downturn, there’s a lot more cocooning going on," Skolnik said. "People are staying home. They’re not out on the street. It’s harder to become a victim if you’re locked in your house watching TV."
While Skolnik said he still expects a need for future prison system expansion, Richard Siegel of the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada questioned whether the expansion is needed and noted that 20 percent of the beds in various prison facilities are vacant.
Siegel also said he was optimistic that the current prison population could be maintained.
He said state parole authorities are "more proactive" now in returning convicts to the streets, and a major study panel on which he serves is looking for ways to hold down the number of inmates behind bars.