By Ray Hagar, Nevada Newsmakers
Assemblyman Steve Yeager, D-Las Vegas, is trying to overhaul the Nevada criminal justice system in one of the biggest efforts in the 2019 Nevada Legislature.
With Assembly Bill 236, Yeager wants to change a longstanding statewide culture some feel is based on fighting crime with longer and harsher prison sentences.
The result of Nevada’s “lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key” philosophy has seen the state’s prison population balloon by more than 900 percent since 1978, according to legislative documents.
“For too long in this state, it has been a punitive system,” Yeager said on Nevada Newsmakers. “You commit a crime, we are going to lock you up and then we act surprised when you get out and you re-offend.”
Time served in Nevada prisons is up 20 percent and admissions are up 6 percent in the last decade, according to state data.
Nevada’s growth in prison population is the opposite of the national trend. Nevada’s prison population has increased by 7 percent since 2009. During the same time, national prison populations have decreased by 7 percent.
“If our corrections system or our justice system was a private business, we would have closed it long ago because it is not getting the results,” Yeager, chairman of the Assembly Judiciary Committee, told host Sam Shad. “Taxpayers deserve better and that is what the focus of AB 236 is.”
Nevada’s criminal justice system will only get worse without reforms, Yeager said. Nevada’s current prison population of 13,800 is expected to hit the 15,000 mark in less than 10 years, according to Department of Corrections data. Taxpayer costs are expected to increase by $770 million in the same time frame.
“I don’t think anyone in the state wants to see our prison spending grow,” Yeager said. “If we stay on the course we are now we are going to have to build at least one — if not two prisons — in the next decade.”
AB 236, however, is a lot to digest. It’s 25 recommendations were forged from the 2017-18 Advisory Commission on the Administration of Justice and its three subcommittees.
Those committees met after more than $1 million was spent by the Crime and Justice Institute of Boston, Mass., on a data-driven assessment of Nevada’s criminal justice system.
AB 236 — the end result of all of that time and money — would save the state almost $700 million in the next decade, align punishments to fit the crime and deplete Nevada’s growing prison population of some of its non-violent offenders, Yeager said.
The bill does not coddle violent offenders, Yeager added.
“Obviously, there are people that need to be in prison,” Yeager said. “We know that. Violent people, anti-social people, dangerous people, they need to be there. But you might be surprised to know that the data showed that just in 2017 alone, people coming into prison, 66 percent of those were for non-violent offenses. And as we stand right now, 43 percent of our prison population is for non-violent offenses.
“The female prison population is even higher — 79 percent who went in in 2017 were there for non-violent offenses,” Yeager said.
The key to the reforms is an emphasis on mental health and drug rehabilitation programs for non-violent prisoners, Yeager said.
“Mental health needs increased 35 percent over the past 10 years — those coming into our criminal justice system with identified mental health needs,” Yeager said. “Another (major need) we heard about were drug issues. It is through the roof, in terms of people who need treatment and they are not getting that treatment out in the community now. So they are cycling through our criminal justice system.
“So the change that you see in AB 236 is a change to treatment, whether it be mental health treatment, drug treatment,” he said. “Some of the numbers that we heard throughout this process were stunning.”
Mental health has not been emphasized in Nevada’s criminal justice system, Yeager said.
“Mental health is an overlooked issue,” he said. “If someone comes into the criminal justice system, we look at the crime. We punish based on the crime but we don’t look at the symptoms. We don’t look at what caused this activity.”
Putting more emphasis on mental health and drug rehabilitation will not only save money, it will also make Nevada safer, Yeager said.
“The philosophy behind AB 236 is actually to increase public safety,” Yeager said. “It is to solve problems. Right now, we are not solving problems. We have people cycling in and out. So it is a focus and a shift of resources to the front end of the criminal justice system. Right when you come in the door, what is it that you need and how can we provide that to keep you out of prison and keep you from coming back to prison?”
Guiding AB 236 through the Legislature has not been an easy process. No floor or committee votes have yet been recorded, even though lawmakers are entering the final month of the session.
Opponents of the bill, including county prosecutors and district attorneys, have voiced opposition to proposals during the interim commission meetings and in hearings of the Assembly Judiciary and Assembly Government Affairs committees.
Washoe County District Attorney Chris Hicks said earlier this year on Nevada Newsmakers that he was concerned about a recommendation from the interim commission that would increase the amount of illegal drugs like meth and heroin needed to qualify for trafficking charges from 4 to 28 grams, or about an ounce.
Others have voiced concerns about changing the original amount needed to qualify for felony theft from $600 to $2,000, Yeager said.
“We have a very low threshold of theft here,” Yeager said. “It is $600 for a felony. Your average iPhone is going to be $1,200. So if you take an iPhone, you are looking at having a felony.
“So we looked at adjusting those levels,” he said. “Initially the bill had proposed $2,000 for a felony, which put us in line with most other states. But that was a concern for some of the businesses. So we did what we do in the legislative building. We sat down, we talked about it and we have come to a place where I think everybody can agree is appropriate and that is $1,200 (threshold for felony theft).
Yeager praised the state’s retailers for being willing to work with him on the bill during the legislative session.
“Obviously, we want to protect our businesses,” he said. “But at the same time, some of the philosophy here is to really align the punishment with the actual crime. And it turns out in Nevada, some of our crime levels are really low, compared to other states.”During the session, a big question for Yeager has been: Would the increases in dollar amounts needed for felony theft also increase the instances of crime?
“I’m happy to report that in no other state, has that been the case,” he said. “We are not the first state to undergo this process. I think we’re about the 25th or 30th now. In no state has crime increased in any significant way. In most states, crime has decreased, particularly theft and property crimes.”