Washoe DA critical of Legislature for proposals to change drug trafficking law, abolish private prisons

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By Ray Hagar / Nevada Newsmakers

Washoe County District Attorney Chris Hicks is wary of the “criminal justice reform” being discussed at the Nevada Legislature.

He is especially concerned about a proposal that would make it more difficult to prosecute people for drug trafficking and another bill to ban private prisons.

Speaking on Nevada Newsmakers last week, Hicks said he is anticipating a “crazy session” in the areas of crime and punishment.

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“I’m concerned,” Hicks said. “There this catchphrase nowadays of ‘criminal justice reform.’ And I believe the pendulum has swung a little too far on that.”

One of his top concerns is a recommendation from an interim legislative committee that would increase the amount of illegal drugs like meth and heroin needed to qualify for trafficking charges. Hicks said it would be increased from 4 to 28 grams, or about an ounce. The recommendation is currently a bill-draft request in the Assembly Judiciary Committee and not a printed bill.

The 41-page report of the Advisory Commission on the Administration of Justice also recommends reclassifying simple possession of an illegal drug from a felony to a misdemeanor on the first and second offenses.

Veteran Nevadan Journalist Ray Hagar is known for fair and tough reporting and invigorating commentary.

“What they are talking about is making possession all the way up to 27 grams of, let’s say methamphetamine or heroin, a misdemeanor,” Hicks said of a report done by the ACAJ.

“And for your viewers who don’t know the volume of that, if you had 27 grams of methamphetamine right now, that’s at trafficking level,” Hicks said. “That is mandatory prison in our state. And the reason that is is because that is a quantity that sustains other drug addicts. And one of the biggest problems in our society is the dealing of drugs.”

If there is possession with intent to sell, no matter the quantity, a person could still be charged with a felony under the proposal, said Assembly Judiciary Committee Chair Steve Yeager, D-LV.

When asked if Hicks’ concern that an individual with 27 grams of Illegal drugs could only face possession charges, Yeager wrote in a text message:

“Possibly, but that large of a quantity is probably de facto proof of intent to sell, no? At least I think a DA would always charge it that way.”

Yeager said members of the interim committee were aware of Hicks’ concerns. Yet locking up more people with longer sentences isn’t working.

“Ultimately the Commission understood that what we currently are doing isn’t working and that we need to make some changes, particularly to the way we treat drug offenders in our system,” he said.

“The state data showed that we’re locking up more and more people for low-level drug and property crimes for longer periods,” Yeager said. “This is not only incredibly expensive but also does not improve public safety. The recidivism research shows that we actually make these individuals worse by incarcerating them for extended periods.”

Hicks cites ‘public safety’ in his opposition to the proposed trafficking changes.

“And what this is proposing is there could be someone in downtown Reno walking around with 27 grams of heroin, which is a tremendous amount, and they would get a misdemeanor,” Hicks said. “They could even be cited. That is not good for our public safety. Think what that would do to our homeless population. If they hear that you could come to Reno and possesses heroin and methamphetamine in vast quantities and all you are going to get is a misdemeanor — that’s an example of criminal justice reform swung way too far.”

The interim committee’s proposal to increase trafficking weights also recommended that a strong sign or indication of trafficking by the individual would be required for a trafficking charge.

“All of the Advisory Commission recommendations were carefully thought out to incorporate practices that improve public safety by effectively reducing recidivism,” Yeager said. “They solely target nonviolent offenders who constitute the majority of inmates coming into our prisons. With respect to trafficking, our current statutes have the effect of imposing severe mandatory minimum sentences on some people who are not high-level drug dealers.

“These long mandatory sentences are driving up prison costs and precluding our state from providing necessary treatment services that proactively addresses drug use and addiction in our community- a proven method to reduce drug crime as opposed to longer sentences,” Yeager said. “Without any changes our state will spend over $770 million dollars in the next 10 years building new prisons for more and more nonviolent offenders instead of investing in practices that make our communities safer.”

Hicks also cites public-safety concerns in his opposition to a bill to ban private prisons. Assemblywoman Daniele Monroe-Moreno, D-Las Vegas, is again sponsoring the legislation after her similar bill was vetoed by then Gov. Brian Sandoval after the 2017 session.

“Anytime I see a movement to drastically minimize our prison population, I worry about it,” Hicks said. “Because as soon as I see that, I see public safety concerns. And so whatever our state needs to do to meet the needs of protecting our community from our worst defenders, I’m in support of. So I leave that to the powers-that-be who control all of that to make sure we have the capabilities.

“Look, it is unfortunate,” Hicks added. “People need to be locked up and the public, in general, accept that.”

Hicks supports a measure that would require the Department of Corrections to give photo ID cards to soon-to-be-released inmates, even if the person’s full legal name and age can’t be verified. Currently, the Department of Corrections confiscates IDs upon release that can’t be verified.

“I want to say that I am a supporter of re-entry programs,” Hicks said. “Once someone paid their debt to society, we don’t just want to cast them back into society without an ability to swim.”He questions why prison officials can’t get prisoner’s basic background information before their release.

“Lets face it, we’re law enforcement.The prison is law enforcement and we should be able to do the appropriate background checks to identify someone … I believe it was birth dates. They can’t even verify that? I have a hard time understanding.”

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