Guest column: Nevada bill guts public safety to empty prisons (opinion)
For the past eight years, I have served as the Nevada District Attorney’s Association appointed representative on the Advisory Commission on the Administration of Justice, an interim commission that studies Nevada’s system of criminal justice.
In January, the commission adopted a series of recommendations to the Legislature for what has been described as “criminal justice reform.” I opposed the sweeping recommendations that favored reduction of prison populations over the safety of Nevadans.
The recommendations make up the voluminous Assembly Bill 236, which dropped like a 133-page lead balloon on March 1. The bill had a hearing last Friday, March 8.
While this legislation has recently been touted by its proponents as a “smarter” approach to criminal justice, a closer look at AB 236 reveals that its primary focus is on emptying our prisons, no matter the consequences to law-abiding Nevadans. Some of the pertinent sections of the bill that significantly increase the threat to public safety include:
Sections 1-4 of the bill allow criminals who commit serious felonies, including residential burglary, to avoid a conviction and prison if they participate in a “preprosecution diversion program.” Certain criminals can enter the program over the objection of the prosecutor and even the victim.
Section 35 of the bill would prohibit courts from revoking the probation of violators for “technical violations.” Probation in the criminal justice system was never intended to be a right; rather, probation should be a privilege. As written, a judge could not violate a probationer for using illicit drugs, failing to follow a treatment program, failing to maintain employment, failing to seek and maintain employment, failing to pay any required fines or fees, or failing to report any changes in residence.
Section 53 of the bill cuts the prison sentence for convicted felons who are caught illegally possessing a firearm. This change in the law would also give ex-felons in possession of firearms significant credits on the front end of any prison sentence thereby putting these violent offenders back into the communities at an alarming rate.
Section 55 would reduce a vehicle burglary from a felony to a gross misdemeanor, and would cut commercial burglary penalties in half. This same thought process resulted in a 26 percent increase in “smash and grabs” in areas of Northern California last year.
Sections 58-83, 85, 126, 131 and 132 increase the current felony theft threshold from $650 to $2,000. This increase in the value of goods that a thief may steal will have a significant impact on retailers, and ultimately the consumers.
Section 86 would render Nevada’s habitual criminal statutes virtually useless. Under current laws, prosecutors can charge certain repeat felony offenders with being a “habitual criminal.” This bill would severely limit the types of felony convictions courts could consider, making it harder for prosecutors to use the habitual criminal enhancements to protect their respective communities.
Section 93 of the bill allows certain sex offenders, violent criminals, and those who have committed every serious crime, except first degree murder, to be paroled after serving the first seven years of their sentence, without any demonstration of medical need under the bill’s “geriatric parole” provision.
Section 113 of the bill would make possession of large quantities of even the most deadly drugs a misdemeanor. This means that someone could possess more than 100 times the amount of heroin that an addict uses to get his fix, and potentially only receive a citation. With the nation fighting an opioid epidemic, this is a step in the wrong direction.
The changes proposed by AB 236 are strikingly similar to those of California’s Proposition 47. Like AB 236, California’s Proposition 47 reclassified drug possession and felony thefts as misdemeanors. And like AB 236, its proponents focused on the cost savings associated with decreased incarceration, but gave little thought to the social costs that law-abiding Californians would pay.
The result is what Marc Debbaudt, president emeritus of the Association of Los Angeles Deputy District Attorneys, deemed in the San Francisco Chronicle “an explosion” of property crimes, and the erosion of the public’s confidence in law enforcement and the criminal justice system.
Rather than “smart” legislation that focuses on keeping the public safe from the most serious offenders, AB 236 simply allows criminals to avoid paying the just consequences of their actions. Criminal justice reform should not sacrifice public safety. Nevadans deserve better.
Mark B. Jackson is Douglas County district attorney.