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New program targets petty criminals

CARSON CITY — A Senate committee approved a court program Wednesday that would provide treatment and social services to petty criminals instead of jail time, although the bill creating it still awaits the scrutiny of a budget committee.

Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, D-Las Vegas, is sponsoring Senate Bill 349, which would set up the pilot program in Clark County allowing people with misdemeanors to avoid a criminal sentence if they successfully complete drug rehabilitation, job training or other self-improvement programs.

The bill “offers an alternative that changes the behavior of low-level offenders before they commit more serious crimes,” Horsford told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “More importantly, it helps them get their lives on track so crime is not a way of life.”

To participate in community court, a person would have to plead guilty to their misdemeanor charge and agree to a sentence that could be imposed if they failed to meet program requirements.

Then, the offender is evaluated to determine which support programs they need most. Services could include job training, drug rehab, literacy courses and affordable housing.

“These programs help eliminate the reasons for committing the crime in the first place,” said bill co-sponsor Assemblywoman Dina Neal, D-North Las Vegas.

The bill would require the offenders to pay for the cost of their treatment programs if they can afford it.

Community court is based on similar programs in Seattle, New York and San Francisco. It also resembles the Court Compliance Program already operating in Washoe County.

Orrin Johnson of the Washoe County public defender’s office said that program has a recidivism rate lower than 20 percent.

“These programs work,” he said.

SB349, which would cost $1 million to implement, was sent to the Senate Finance Committee for budget consideration.

The proposal comes during precarious financial times for specialty courts. The governor’s proposed budget shifts financial responsibility for the mental health court system — which offers treatment and accountability to low-level offenders diagnosed with a mental illness — from the state to strained county budgets.

Mental health court advocates pleaded last week for the program to be restored to the state budget. They said counties can’t afford the financial burden and the program would collapse without state support.

Proponents of SB349 framed the community court as an investment that would reduce costs by preventing prison time and reducing the number of crime victims.

“This isn’t about being soft,” said bill co-sponsor Assemblyman Jason Frierson, D-Las Vegas. “This is about being smart.”

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