weather icon Partly Cloudy

Nevada ‘tough-on-crime’ bills could force Jean prison to reopen

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 swhaley@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3900. Follow @seanw801 on Twitter.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
Politics Videos
The Right Take: Biden's Racially Questionable Comments
Joe Biden has uttered racially charged statements for years. Now that he’s the frontrunner for the Democrat presidential nomination, he may finally face prolonged scrutiny for them.
Christopher Rufo Discusses Homelessness In The USA - VIDEO
Christopher Rufo discusses homelessness in the United States and how politicians can work to improve conditions for those with drug addictions.
Clark County 2019 Election Results - Video
The 2019 Elections wrap up in Clark County including an upset in the Boulder City Mayor race.
Olivia Diaz talks about her win in Ward 3 - VIDEO
Las Vegas City Councilwoman-elect Olivia Diaz talks about her election win in Ward 3 and what lies ahead for her.
Greene discusses Read by 3 and Opportunity Scholarships - VIDEO
The Nevada Legislative Session is over and the results are mixed for Nevada students, according to Tom Greene, Senior regional legislative director, Excel in Ed in Action.
Bernie Sanders visits Las Vegas
Sen. Bernie Sanders made a stop at Roy W. Martin middle school on Thursday, during his campaign trail.
Kamala Harris campaigns in Las Vegas
Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris castigated President Donald Trump’s merit-based immigration plan, saying it was “short-sighted” and overlooked the cultural significance of family, during a campaign stop in Las Vegas. “We cannot allow people to start parsing and pointing fingers and creating hierarchies among immigrants,” Harris told Asian Pacific Islander leaders at a Chinatown restaurant, one of two appearances she made Thursday.
The Right Take New Education Funding Plan - VIDEO
On Monday, Senate Education Committee chair Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, released a new education funding formula. For years, many Democrat politicians have criticized the current education funding formula, called the Nevada Plan. They claim it’s old and outdated. Their biggest beef is that it doesn’t allocate more money for students who are English Language Learners or live in poverty. The theory is that it’s harder to educate those students and so they need additional services, which costs additional money.
Kamala Harris campaigns in Nevada
California Senator Kamala Harris meets with One APIA Nevada, a nonprofit organization that advocates for policies empowering Asian Pacific Islander Nevadans. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Ben Carson talks housing (Audio only)
Ben Carson discusses housing with the Review-Journal editorial board on Thursday. (Audio only)
Ben Carson visits the RJ (Full Audio Only)
Ben Carson discusses housing with the Review-Journal editorial board on Thursday. (Audio only)
Former Vice President Joe Biden campaigns in Nevada
After campaigning at the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades District Council 16 in Henderson, former Vice President Joe Biden spoke with the Review-Journal.
Student serenades Mayor Carolyn Goodman at swearing in
Students from the school she founded, The Meadows School, serenaded Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman during a swearing in ceremony for her third and final term. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Al Gore Speaks At UNLV About Climate Change - Video
Former Vice President of the United States Al Gore talks to an audience at UNLV about the effects of Climate change and how to switch to renewable sources of energy.
Forum on Wages and Working People Highlights - VIDEO
Presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren, Beto O'Rourke, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Julian Castro, and John Hickenlooper speak in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Nevada Politics Today Valerie Weber - VIDEO
Valerie Weber sits down with Victor Joecks to discuss her policies and why she is running for Ward 2 of the Las Vegas City Council.
Cory Booker speaks at UNLV
US Senator Cory Booker speaks at UNLV during a Young Democrats meet and greet on Thursday, April 18, 2019. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
May-Brown describes why some with disabilities need the subminimum wage - VIDEO
Eliminating the subminimum wage will end training and work opportunities for some members of the disabled community. Instead of doing something productive, they would be relegated to adult day care. That’s according to Tracy May-Brown, Opportunity Village’s director of advocacy, board and government relations.
Commission’s decision will delay Red Rock Canyon development
The Clark County Commission Wednesday rejected a developer’s request to approve a preliminary plan for 3,000 homes overlooking Red Rock Canyon before a federal agency grants permission for a roadway leading to the site.
Clark County commissioner calls on landlords to bring properties up to code
Clark County Commissioner Tick Segerblom has called on landlords in older parts of the valley to bring their properties up to code and keep them well-maintained or face the prospect of inspections, fines and citations. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Harry Reid speaks out against anti-Semitism
Unnerved by the rise in anti-Semitic hate speech and the general pervasiveness of bigotry, including in Nevada, former U.S. Sen. Harry Reid organized an educational forum at UNLV on Thursday as part of his call to unite people against it. (Shea Johnson/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
President Trump speaks to the Republican Jewish Coalition in Las Vegas
President Donald Trump spoke at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s National Leadership Meeting in Las Vegas and updated on Israeli relations. (Heidi Fang/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Trump says border wall will have 'hundreds of miles' built by end of next year
President Donald Trump spoke at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s National Leadership Meeting in Las Vegas and discussed the progress of the border wall and the current relations there. (Heidi Fang/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Protesters disrupt Trump's speech
Just as President Donald Trump started to make his opening remarks during his appearance at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s National Leadership Meeting, protesters disrupted his speech. (Heidi Fang/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Roerink On The Problems With Taking Water From Eastern Nevada - Video
The Southern Nevada Water Authority wants to take billions of gallons of water that doesn’t exist from Eastern Nevada via a pipeline that would cost ratepayers $15 billion. Doing so would devastate the wildlife and people who live there. That’s according to Kyle Roerink, executive director of the Great Basin Water Network, which opposes the pipeline.
Las Vegas Election Night Wrap-Up
The Review-Journal's Politics and Government Editor, Steve Sebelius, wraps up election night. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Olivia Diaz Speaks To Ward 3 Supporters After Primary Election - Video
Olivia Diaz speaks to her supporters at a election party after results started coming in for the Ward 3 primaries.
Oscar Goodman Speaks On Behalf Of Mayor At Primary Win (edited)
Oscar Goodman spoke Tuesday night on behalf of his wife, Carolyn, who won the mayoral primary election. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Oscar Goodman Speaks On Behalf Of Mayor At Primary Win (Full)
Oscar Goodman spoke Tuesday night on behalf of his wife Carolyn, who won the mayoral primary election. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Gun Debate Shows Limits Of Government - Video
On Monday, the Assembly and Senate Judiciary Committees held a joint hearing on Assembly Bill 291. It would ban bump stocks and allow local governments to pass additional restrictions on firearms.
Lucy Flores speaks out about Biden incident
Former Nevada assemblywoman, Lucy Flores, expresses her feelings about an incident with former Vice President Joe Biden in 2014. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @Vegas88s
Harry Reid takes the stand in injury lawsuit
Former U.S. Sen. Harry Reid took the stand on Thursday in the product liability lawsuit brought against the makers of a resistance exercise band that Reid blames for blinding him in one eye.
Nevada gets $3M in settlement for ITT students

Attorney General Aaron Ford announced his office has reached a settlement with Student CU Connect CUSO, a company that offered loans for students attending ITT Tech that Ford called abusive.