Las Vegas Sun

November 21, 2018

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Metro sheriff joins national effort to cut inmate rosters


Steve Marcus

Special housing cells are shown during a tour Tuesday, July 23, 2013, of the Clark County Detention Center.

Click to enlarge photo

Clark County Sheriff Joe Lombardo responds to a question during a meeting with Las Vegas Sun reporters and editors at Las Vegas Metro Police headquarters Tuesday, March 24, 2015.

As Clark County officials look to reduce overcrowding at its detention center, which has run a deficit amid rising costs, Sheriff Joe Lombardo has signed on to a coalition of 130 U.S. law enforcement leaders pushing to cut incarceration rates.

The group of police chiefs and prosecutors seeks to roll back overly harsh laws, end mandatory minimum sentences and create alternatives to arrest, such as mental health treatment. They are also focusing on creating stronger ties with the community. Launched on Wednesday, the group, Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration, includes top police chiefs from some of the country's largest metropolitan areas, including New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.

Some members of the group, not including Lombardo, plan to meet with President Barack Obama today.

In what some are calling a shift for local law enforcement long known for staking out severe positions when it comes to fighting crime, the group writes in its mission statement: “From experience and through data-driven and innovative practices, we know the country can reduce crime while also reducing unnecessary arrests, prosecutions and incarceration.”

For several years, Clark County has had to grapple with overcrowding at its detention center. Since 2013, the average daily population at the detention center was several hundred inmates higher than its capacity to handle about 3,800 inmates. During that same time period, deficits for operating the detention center more than doubled as county expenditures also increased.

County officials have been actively looking to close the deficit gap and address the overcrowding problem, in part, by downsizing the inmate population in a way that considers public safety. As of Jan. 29, the jail had a population of 476 nonviolent misdemeanor offenders, County Manager Don Burnette told commissioners at a budget workshop in March.

Since then, the county has already taken some steps. At the same March meeting, Burnette announced that the county added four corrections officers to its house arrest program, making it possible for 150 nonviolent offenders to move from the jail to the program. And in June, a judge authorized the release of 105 inmates serving time for minor nonviolent offenses.

Lombardo, who took over as sheriff in January, was not available for comment on Wednesday.

But Metro has also looked to actively advance some of the priorities that the coalition of local law enforcement leaders plans to advocate for in the coming months. During a meeting with the Las Vegas Sun on Monday, Lombardo emphasized the department’s commitment to work with the community. He meets monthly with a Multi-Cultural Advisory Council, for instance, that comes to him with concerns from a variety of local groups and help shape Metro policy.

Lombardo also endorsed the “broken windows theory,” which suggests that if small violations are addressed and prevented, an area will see a similar decreasing effect on serious crimes.

“It’s actually accurate,” Lombardo said of the broken windows theory. “It takes you a long time as a police officer to accept those kind of theories … until you actually see it happen.”

In September, Metro secured funding through a sales tax increase for about 130 new officers. To the public, Lombardo noted that this might seem a counterintuitive effort at a time when the jail is downsizing and the criminal justice system is burdened. But he said his force is focused on preventing crime when it can, rather than operating only in response to crime.

“What’s more successful in crime fighting is not reaction but prevention,” he said.

During the March meeting, a top official from Metro told commissioners that bookings are down, a direct result of policy changes that allow officers to write more tickets, keeping more offenders out of jail. According to an annual report for the detention center, there were 59,834 bookings in 2014, a steady decrease since 2011 when there were nearly 78,000.

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