In spite of sponsor's concessions, prosecutors remain strongly opposed to major criminal justice reform bill
Democratic Assemblyman Steve Yeager says he’s further scaling back an ambitious criminal justice reform bill, but it still has strong opposition from prosecutors who are calling for major changes in the measure with less than four days left in the session.
Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on Friday reviewed AB236, a bill that seeks to enshrine 25 recommendations from an interim commission aimed at slowing the rise of Nevada prison costs. But members of the Nevada District Attorneys Association pushed back against plans to raise the drug quantity threshold that qualifies as trafficking, an expansion of eligibility for diversion programs that replace jail time and other provisions.
“There has been very little discussion about the social costs, which are incredibly hard to quantify,” said Jennifer Noble, the group’s lobbyist. “The NDAA urges you to consider the unintended consequences of saving money at the cost of public safety.”
Yeager said he would be removing provisions that would expand pre-prosecution diversion programs “in the interest of compromise.” He said he remained open to amendments, but expressed frustration with the tone of the district attorneys’ testimony.
“I’m a little discouraged by the opposition from the Nevada District Attorneys Association. Almost every change you see in this bill from the first version to now has been at the request of the district attorneys association, and here we are again today asking for additional substantial revisions to the bill,” he said in the hearing, pointing out that no other state that has tried a similar “justice reinvestment” project has done it with support from district attorneys.
Pre-prosecution diversion aims to put certain offenders into supervision and rehabilitation programs, such as drug treatment, before they are formally charged. Those who successfully complete their programs will have the charges dropped.
Members of the Advisory Commission on the Administration of Justice during the interim had recommended an expansion of such programs, noting that four in 10 people entering prison in Nevada in 2017 had no prior felony record, and two-thirds were coming in for a non-violent offense. Prosecutors, however, want people to plead guilty to their charges first to take responsibility for their action, and they also want to make it easier for district attorneys to prosecute a case if someone fails in a diversion program.
The existing version of the bill allows such a program for first-time, non-violent offenders, but Attorney General Aaron Ford and the Retail Association of Nevada were among those who said its removal, as Yeager promised, helped them move to support. Although Ford said he sympathized with some of the concerns from prosecutors, said he liked many of the elements of the bill.
“We cannot incarcerate ourselves out of the opioid crisis. This bill provides and important structure to support diversion and treatment over incarceration,” he said, adding that criminal justice reform “does not mean we do nothing about criminal justice. It means, however, equality for all in the system.”
The bill attracted support from public defenders and a number of fiscally conservative groups, including chambers of commerce and Americans for Prosperity. In a vote earlier this week, however, no Republicans voted in favor of the bill.
Yeager said he plans to talk with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Nicole Cannizzaro to see what changes are needed to get the bill out of her committee and to a vote on the Senate floor in the final days of the session.
“I feel good about where it’s at,” Yeager said after the hearing. “I’m a little stressed, but I still feel confident.”