Las Vegas Sun

July 21, 2019

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How Nevada can protect public safety and reduce recidivism rate

Some would have us believe that holding wrongdoers accountable is incompatible with creating a criminal justice system that is more equitable and more effective at rehabilitating inmates.

We know this is untrue because a number of states, including Oklahoma and Texas, are proving it’s possible to improve a criminal justice system while also protecting public safety.

Here in Nevada, there is an urgency to follow suit.

While other states have seen their prisoner population drop in recent years, Nevada’s prison population increased by 7 percent from 2009 to 2017. And according to one estimate, the state’s prison population will increase to 15,000 by 2028, at a cost of $770 million. That’s a significant amount of money that could be used to boost our economy, invest in our education system or help pay for other state priorities.

A few months ago, the Nevada Advisory Commission on the Administration of Justice began looking at why our prison population has grown by almost 700 percent since 1980. What the commission found is that we incarcerate a large number of people who commit nonviolent offenses and probably don’t need to be behind bars in the first place.

Additionally, the commission found that we are not doing enough to redirect nonviolent defendants to pre-prosecution diversion programs to treat those with substance abuse as an alternative to incarceration. In all, the commission made more than two dozen recommendations to improve Nevada’s criminal justice system that could save Nevadans as much as $640 million over the next decade.

To their credit, lawmakers have introduced Assembly Bill 236, which would enact many of these recommendations into law, including expanding access to pre-prosecution programs for the elderly and the sick. The bill also includes several sentencing reforms to ensure punishments are proportionate to the crimes committed. Other changes would provide law enforcement officials with the use of risk-and-needs assessments to help distinguish those posing the biggest flight risk threat from others who can await trial without compromising public safety.

These changes will help make better use of our taxpayer dollars. Of course, it’s not just about dollars and cents. Extending a second chance to those who are ready to reintegrate themselves back into society is moving away from seeing prisoners as a liability to manage, to seeing them instead as wells of untapped potential.

Frederick Douglass, the former slave turned abolitionist, once said: “I would unite with anybody to do right, and with nobody to do wrong.” That’s exactly the approach we should all embrace during this critical time when our prison population is projected to grow.

It’s time to throw away the old playbook of partisanship and divisiveness, for one of inclusiveness and collaboration.

At the Nevada chapter of Americans for Prosperity, we are taking this advice to heart. Recently, we joined forces with the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada to rally in support of criminal justice reform on the south steps of the state Capitol.

We will be the first to admit that we don’t normally see eye to eye with these groups, but when it comes to tearing down barriers that are getting in the way of creating a more equitable criminal justice system, there is no disagreement.

Now, it’s time for lawmakers in Carson City to come together and work across party lines to send AB236 to Gov. Steve Sisolak’s desk without delay.

Juan Martinez is the Nevada state director at Americans for Prosperity.