CARSON CITY — More than 30 “tough-on-crime”-type bills under consideration in the Legislature this year could end up being tough on the pocketbooks of Nevada taxpayers as well, to the tune of millions of scarce general fund dollars.
Crime bills under consideration by lawmakers run the gamut from eliminating the statute of limitations for sexual assault to creating a new felony for operating a weaponized drone.
Others would prohibit the sale or transfer of ivory and ivory products under certain circumstances and increase the term of imprisonment for leaving the scene of an accident involving injury or death.
But they all have one thing in common: They all could cause a hit on the state budget by creating more prison inmates.
While the 31 measures creating new crimes, enhancing penalties for existing crimes or doing both are well-intentioned, each measure has the potential to create incremental growth to the point where millions of dollars might be needed to address a growing inmate population, said Steve Yeager, a deputy public defender in the Clark County Public Defender’s Office.
At a recent hearing on a bill that would create a new felony for repeat graffiti offenses, Yeager said the many measures enhancing criminal penalties could force the Department of Corrections to reopen the shuttered Southern Nevada Correctional Center at Jean to accommodate the growth in inmates.
Just getting the prison ready to open to accept inmates would cost an estimated $10 million. Annual operating costs could run another $18 million. All the money would have to come from the state general fund.
“If the Legislature continues to criminalize more behavior without discussing the reduction of penalties for existing crimes, the cumulative effect of this legislation will substantially increase fiscal costs,” Yeager said.
Assembly Judiciary Chairman Ira Hansen, R-Sparks, said that for him, public safety is the No. 1 priority for such bills. If ensuring public safety means spending more money on incarceration, then that is an acceptable and necessary trade-off, he said.
“If in fact we do need to send someone to prison, then so be it,” he said.
Yeager submitted his research on the bills to the Assembly Judiciary Committee because of a concern that the cumulative impact of the measures is not being taken into account by lawmakers.
“The fiscally responsible thing to do is to step back and look at where we want to spend resources,” he said. “Incarceration is incredibly expensive. We definitely need to keep certain people incarcerated, but we need to focus on the violent offenders.”
While there are also about a dozen bills to remove crimes or reduce penalties, on balance the legislation is skewed toward more crimes and more penalties, Yeager said.
Some of the bills likely will fall by the wayside this week, when the deadline to move measures out of committee hits Friday.
Hansen said efforts are made to reduce felonies where possible with an eye to keeping the prison population manageable, but it’s not an easy balance.
He noted that during the graffiti bill hearing, Las Vegas police testified that graffiti eradication costs government and businesses in Southern Nevada $30 million a year.
“If they are doing $30 million worth of damage each year in Clark County alone, that’s a lot of beds you can fill at $25,000 a person,” Hansen said. “If I have to come down on one side or the other, it’s always going to be on the side of public safety.”
Senate Judiciary Chairman Greg Brower, R-Reno, said that when lawmakers try to decide the right punishment for a crime, potential inmate growth is not a factor because it is impossible to predict with any degree of certainty.
“So you have to try to do the right thing by making sure the sentence ranges fit the crime,” he said.
Yeager’s concerns reflect the potential of an unintended consequence that cannot be calculated, Brower said.
He also noted that Nevada’s prison population is not growing.
“The prison population is going down,” Brower said. “And we don’t put people in prison for minor drug offenses, which is a myth that some in the building try to propagate.”
The Department of Corrections projects only slight inmate growth in the upcoming two years of the budget, from about 12,700 this year to just under 12,900 by the end of the second year June 30, 2017.
Yeager said the many bills that could increase criminal penalties show either no fiscal note or a minimal amount from the Department of Corrections, meaning that the measures won’t even be reviewed by the Legislature’s two money committees.
He questioned the analysis showing little to no fiscal impact. If one bill results in five new inmates sentenced to a year in prison, the cost would exceed $100,000, Yeager said.
“While there may be ‘no fiscal impact’ for each bill this legislative session, which is highly debatable, the ‘cumulative fiscal impact’ of this body of legislation is enormous,” he said.
Sen. Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas, had sought legislation prior to the Republican takeover of the Legislature to work on reducing the prison population, including addressing the issue of elderly and ill inmates, but the proposals are on the shelf for this session.
“The reality is everybody comes up here and has a pet peeve to criminalize a certain behavior and lock people up,” he said. “But the fact is we’ve done that for 20 years, and it hasn’t worked. We need to stop trying to raise penalties and criminalize everything.”
A member of the Judiciary Committee and an attorney, Segerblom said lawmakers should focus on rehabilitation and diversion and reduce the number of inmates. The specialty courts in place around the state, such as the drug courts, have been a huge success in doing just that, he said.
Gov. Brian Sandoval has proposed putting $3 million more in state general funds into the specialty courts each year in the new budget, enough to treat another 800 to 900 people.
“That’s where the whole country is going,” Segerblom said.
Contact Sean Whaley at email@example.com or 775-687-3900. Follow @seanw801 on Twitter.
See all of our coverage: 2015 Nevada Legislature.