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Prisons too full, judge warns

CARSON CITY — Nevada Supreme Court Justice James Hardesty told members of the Legislature on Tuesday the state needs to commit to reducing the state prison population by 2,000 inmates in the coming several months.

If nothing is done the prison system will exceed its capacity by November, he told a joint Senate Finance and Assembly Ways and Means budget subcommittee.

The inmate population was reported at 12,600 in mid-February, and 13,150 inmates just two weeks ago, Hardesty said.

The Legislature should convene the Advisory Commission on Sentencing, made up of the judiciary, lawmakers and others, and charge it with the task of looking at how to reduce the inmate population, he said.

The commission should report back in four months, and the Legislature should seriously consider a special session to take action on any recommendations, Hardesty said.

"Because here is the reckoning day," he said. "As the Department of Corrections pointed out to you, we will exceed capacity in our prisons by November. This simply cannot happen."

State officials are concerned that federal court intervention in the system could be the result.

Hardesty said there are many changes and actions that can be taken to reach this target, including the deportation of inmates who are illegal immigrants. The Pardons Board is currently moving ahead with the deportation of as many as 500 such inmates.

"One step alone I urge the Legislature to consider is to grant the judges discretion in making specific findings to deviate from mandatory sentences," he said. "We are incarcerating the wrong people in our drug trafficking laws.

"Why are we sending a 19-year-old to prison for 10 to 25 who drove drugs from Sacramento to Salt Lake City and got caught in Lovelock with a broken tail light and a trafficking quantity in the trunk," Hardesty said.

Other ways to reduce the population include improving the probation system and access to programs, and by strengthening specialty courts such as the drug court, Hardesty said. Right now there are only 20 people in the Clark County drug court program, he said.

The comments came after the panel heard from Michael Thompson, director of the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments, and James Austin, president of the JFA Institute that advises Nevada on its prison population, on ways to reduce inmate growth.

In responding to the crowding issue in Connecticut, Thompson’s group advised reducing incarceration for probation violations to nine months, from 12 months. Other options included more investment in communities and neighborhoods that generated the most inmates, Thompson said.

The Connecticut Legislature adopted the options and went from the second fastest growing state in inmate population growth to a state with the second steepest decline in the country, he said. The crime rate also declined, Thompson said.

Other states are grappling with the same issues and deciding not to continue to construct new prisons in perpetuity but to look at alternatives, he said.

Austin told the Legislature the latest estimates show Nevada’s prison inmate population is projected to grow by 60 percent over the next decade, making it among the fastest growing of all the states in this category, unless something is done.

The state can spend $2 billion on new prisons to house the inmate growth, but the crime rate will not likely go down as a result, he said.

A major factor is revoked probation, which results in prison admissions, Austin said. About 2,000 failed probation last year in Nevada. That is about one-third of the prison admission stream, he said.

Improving success in this area would be a help to reducing the projected growth, Austin said.

Senate Finance Chairman Bill Raggio, R-Reno, agreed that one of the failings of the system is a lack of support for first-time offenders.

The state needs to commit to more intense supervision of this group, he said.

Three options presented to lawmakers by the panel included:

• Provide more credits for inmates participating in programming. Unfortunately, there aren’t that many programming opportunities so this recommendation won’t have a big impact, Austin said.

• Divert low-level felons from the prison system as quickly as possible.

• Reduce by 30 percent the number of people on probation sent to prison for failing to meet the conditions of supervision.

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