Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2019 | 2 a.m.
Our prisons are packed, corrections costs are skyrocketing, and at the rate we’re going, Nevada will have more than 15,000 people behind bars in 10 years. To keep up with that growth, we’ll have to build new prisons and expand existing ones at a staggering cost to taxpayers of $770 million.
The situation is clear: Maintaining the status quo in our criminal justice system is no longer an option. It’s time for a smarter approach to public safety in Nevada.
Gov. Steve Sisolak was exactly right when he said during last month’s State of the State address that “we can be tough on crime and reduce recidivism.” This session, the Legislature has the opportunity to consider a package of policy recommendations that can do just that by expanding alternatives to long periods of incarceration for low-level, nonviolent offenders and focusing costly prison resources on the most serious and violent offenders. Together, these recommendations would avert 89 percent of the projected prison growth over the next decade and save $640 million that we can reinvest in proven strategies to reduce crime and protect public safety.
The recommendations target valuable resources where they’re most needed and effective at reducing crime and protecting public safety. These policy changes will strengthen criminal justice responses to individuals with mental illness or addiction, improve the efficiency and effectiveness of community supervision, and minimize barriers for individuals returning to the community after incarceration.
The proposals do not suggest reducing penalties for those whose crimes warrant tough sentences — violent offenders and habitual criminals. The commission, in fact, recommended increased penalties for more serious offenses like home invasion.
The Advisory Commission on the Administration of Justice developed these recommendations after spending five months examining data collected from Nevada’s own corrections system and reviewing proven strategies that work to reduce recidivism and protect public safety. I had the privilege of serving as chairman of the commission during that process, and here’s what we found: We are sending too many people to prison for nonviolent crimes for too long at too high a cost. And when they get out, nearly a third of them end up incarcerated within three years.
As a result, Nevada’s prison population has increased 7 percent since 2008, even as incarceration rates declined nationally. And the majority of offenders admitted to our prisons in 2017 were for nonviolent offenses, with 4 out of 10 having no prior felony record.
And despite the increase in the prison population, our state has not seen a corresponding public safety return, as recidivism rates have increased for all offense types. More than 1,500 individuals released from prison in 2014 were re-incarcerated in 2017, many of them for probation and parole violations caused by mental health and substance abuse issues.
That’s not a system that’s keeping us safe or giving taxpayers the return they deserve on their public safety investment.
Nevada now has a chance to do what 35 states have already done — improve public safety by focusing resources on those offenders who threaten our safety. With a $770 million price tag and growing recidivism rates ahead of us, we can’t afford to let that opportunity slip by.
Steve Yeager represents District 9 in the Nevada State Assembly and serves as speaker pro tempore, chairman of the Assembly Judiciary Committee and chairman of the Advisory Commission on the Administration of Justice.