Reforms in sentencing rules being reviewed
Giving the members of the newly formed Sentencing Commission what he termed homework, Justice Jim Hardesty on Monday asked them to start thinking about what data they want to see to reform Nevada sentencing rules as well as what subjects they want the commission to tackle before the 2019 Legislature.
“For much of Nevada’s history, very little attention was given to terms of punishment,” he told the 25-member commission. “The Legislature really didn’t debate sentencing.”
In 1995, Nevada completely restructured criminal sentencing, placing felonies into five different categories from “A” for the most serious to “E” for the lowest level crimes.
“But no one could really explain why a crime was in a certain category,” he said. “What we’ve struggled with is the simple question, what is the definition of Category A, B, C, D and E.”
That problem has just grown more complex since 1995 as lawmakers reacting to public pressure and individual crimes moved a number of crimes up the scale – primarily into Category B. Just this year, the 2017 Legislature put an additional nine crimes into Category B, raising the total number there to 226 different crimes with sentences ranging up to 20 years in prison. Many of those crimes are non-violent offenses.
Hardesty said it’s probably time the commission looked not only into the different crimes and why they’re in a given category but into sentencing practices he said appear to differ significantly across the state. He said a study done a half dozen years ago showed sentencing practices of district judges “were quite a bit all over the map,” with some judges ordering prison two thirds of the time for a given crime while others ordered probation two thirds of the time for the same crime with similar circumstances.
Washoe DA Christopher Hicks pointed out Nevada has different counties and communities, and some differences in sentencing may be the result of the expectations of residents in those different areas, particularly smaller, rural communities.
Chuck Callaway representing the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department said it’s important the commission get detailed information about not only the sentences handed down but background on the defendants including their criminal history and the crimes they were originally charged with since many cases are bargained down to a lesser charge.
Consultant Kelly Mitchell of the Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Justice told the commission they need to be able to look at all sorts of data on defendants to understand the sentences they received and that data, she said, must come primarily from the courts.
Hardesty said there are some weaknesses in the current ability of courts to collect and report that data. But Washoe District Chief Judge Scott Freeman said after the meeting they’re working those problems out and should be able to get the necessary information for the commission.
Director of Corrections James Dzurenda said the challenge is to figure out who should be in prison and who would be better released into what he called “wrap-around programs” to deal with everything from defendant mental health issues, substance abuse, educational deficiencies, getting them jobs and other issues.
“It’s important to find out whether an offender needs to be in prison or would be better in the community,” he said.
Large numbers of those inmates are guilty of non-violent drug and property crimes. Overall, he said 60 percent are serving time for violent or sex crimes.
He said in the long run, those programs can dramatically reduce the inmate population that’s now at record levels of more than 14,000.
He and Hardesty both said particularly in rural settings where those services aren’t available, judges often feel they have no alternative but to incarcerate a person.
“You can’t release an offender in less time without wrap-around services,” said Dzurenda.
The commission’s task is to prepare a report for the 2019 Legislature on how to reform and clean up inconsistencies in Nevada’s sentencing practices and to submit a bill draft to implement some of their recommended changes.