Poll shows prisons and law enforcement are not a priority for struggling Nevadans

Law enforcement agencies and prison conditions are not a priority for Nevadans in a struggling economic climate where unemployment and foreclosures are the highest in the nation, a new poll found.

Half of likely voters said they would raise taxes just enough to keep the system afloat while almost three in 10 voters said they would reduce or eliminate funding rather than spend money on improvements in that area of the state’s budget.

The telephone poll of 600 likely Nevada voters was conducted Sept. 6 to Sept. 16 by Magellan Research for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, 8NewsNow and Vegas PBS. There is a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Only 14.7 percent said they would want to see taxes raised to improve law enforcement and prison conditions in a state economy that leads the nation in unemployment and foreclosures.

Marvin Longabaugh, president of Las Vegas-based Magellan Research, said he was surprised by the results, which show “real law and order types” putting money ahead of correctional facilities and law enforcement.

Law-and-order types, including seniors, the middle aged and Republicans, are “typically very supportive of law enforcement,” Longabaugh said, but the poll results showed they want program cuts or only a slight tax increase to keep it as it is.

“When you put law and order up against taxes in today’s economy, people want to leave things the way they are,” he said. “Seniors on fixed incomes are really feeling this recession hard. They’re normally willing to spend money on law enforcement. Not so much today.”

The wording of the poll question — which lumped together law enforcement and prison conditions — might have thrown off the results, Longabaugh said. He added there are people who would be in favor of funding police but not improving prison conditions.

Andrew Spivak, a sociology professor at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who worked in Oklahoma’s correctional department for 10 years, said he agreed with Longabaugh.

People “are reluctant to say we should skimp on paying cops or having police services,” Spivak said. “They’re usually much more willing to say we should spend less money on corrections. By putting these two topics together in one question, you put the respondent in a bind.”

According to the poll, 28 percent of the respondents are OK with cutting law enforcement and prisons rather than raising taxes.

“It reflects extreme worry that the current economic situation has on the people responding,” Longabaugh said. “Money is a bigger concern than ever before.”

Howard Skolnik, director of the state’s correctional department, said he’s pleased voters would still fund the system despite the economy.

“To get any kind of, ‘If you have to (raise taxes), go ahead,’ is really very positive,” Skolnik said.

State legislators recently rejected a proposal by Skolnik and Gov. Jim Gibbons to close the 140-year-old Nevada State Prison in Carson City. Gibbons and Skolnik argued staff cuts make it a safety risk and called for the closure to cut spending because of a drop in state tax revenues caused by the recession.

“This is the only thing the department has left to give up without jeopardizing public safety,” Skolnik said. “It’s the only option I can live with.”

Skolnik added that closing the prison could provide the state up to $150 million for the next 10 years. It’s money that could be used for areas such as education, he added.

“Nobody will be released,” Skolnik said. “We can close the institution and absorb 100 percent of inmates to other institutions in the state.”

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the incarceration rate has recently grown at a slower pace for the first time in 30 years, after sharp increases in the 1980s and 1990s.

Secretary of State Ross Miller sits on the Board of Prisons Commissioners, which oversees the state’s corrections department. Miller said he feels “very strongly that public safety isn’t an area we can afford to trim.”

The prison board, which includes Gibbons, Miller and Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto, voted against the proposal 2-1. Gibbons was the lone vote favoring the closure.

“I think the public is probably hopeful that in these lean economic times we could simply cut unneeded services or find efficiencies to deal with the budget gap without increasing budget revenue,” Miller said. “We should focus on those areas, but when it comes to something as significant as closing a prison, you run into overcrowding and mandating paroles to the worst offenders.”

Contact Kristi Jourdan at kjourdan@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0279.

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