Las Vegas Sun

October 19, 2019

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Prison sentence reform unifies voices from the left and the right


Steve Marcus

A housing unit is shown at the Florence McClure Women’s Correctional Center on Smiley Road Wednesday, May 25, 2016.

Americans for Prosperity and the American Civil Liberties Union stand together on public policy about as often as fans of UNLV and UNR choose to sit together at games.

AFP, for those who aren’t familiar with it, is the libertarian/conservative political action organization founded by the Koch brothers. The ACLU is, well, the ACLU.

But the fact that they’re both supporting a package of judicial reforms in the Nevada Legislature speaks to the strength of that legislation.

It’s a proposal that makes sense from both the right and left.

Not only would it dial back a number of overly harsh sentencing guidelines that have created serious inequity in the incarceration of minorities, but it would ease crowding in the state corrections system and put money being spent there to more productive uses.

The proposal is attractive to AFP largely because it reduces spending, but the organization also points out that it helps provide avenues for more offenders to get out of prison and into the workforce. That’s attractive to an organization like AFP, which at times has advocated to a fault in favor of shrinking government and reducing taxes.

But as the organization’s Nevada director stated in a guest column published this past Saturday in the Sun, there’s much more to the bill than money.

“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,” wrote the director, Juan Martinez.

That’s on target, but it’s unfortunately not where Nevada has been heading in recent years. Instead, the prison population increased by 7 percent from 2009 to 2017, bucking a national trend and an overall decrease in the crime rate. As Martinez pointed out, Nevada is on pace to add 15,000 inmates to the system by 2028, at a cost of an additional $770 million in corrections spending.

The fixes in the proposal were developed by the bipartisan Nevada Advisory Commission on the Administration of Justice, and in some ways take an approach that has led to significant reductions in the prison populations in Texas and Oklahoma.

Put simply, that approach is to identify who you’re mad at and who you’re afraid of, and alter sentencings appropriately. The “mad at” category includes nonviolent offenders like petty thieves and people caught in possession of small amounts of drugs. Sentences for those individuals would be reduced, and barriers that are currently keeping them from returning to the community would be lowered.

The “afraid of” category applies to violent offenders — murderers, rapists, domestic abusers, child molesters and so forth. Sentences for the more serious offenders would remain harsh under the proposal.

Meanwhile, the Nevada legislation would provide greater resources to deal with mental illness and addiction, and improve the effectiveness of community supervision of inmates.

It’s all designed to create a system that holds lawbreakers accountable while also being more effective at rehabilitating those who don’t pose a serious threat to society.

The proposal has run into turbulence from the law enforcement community and municipal representatives during the legislative session, and some of those complaints were well worth discussing. For instance, the lobbyist for Metro Police raised a flag about a provision to reduce auto burglary from a felony to a gross misdemeanor, which could hurt Las Vegas. An uptick in car break-ins would not only be infuriating for us, but it could hurt our economy if it extended to the Strip. Tourists whose cars get burglarized might look for another place to vacation moving forward.

But the reform package is a big one, and everyone knew going into the process that lawmakers would have to spend a lot of time under its hood to get it in shape.

It might be a heavy lift, but it’s worth the effort.

As shown by the fact that it could unite such divergent organizations as AFP and the ACLU, it has a lot to offer.