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On the Record: The policy positions of Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson

Riley Snyder
Riley Snyder
Criminal JusticeElection 2018Government

It happens like clockwork.

Candidates announce their bids for office. Then the attack ads follow in short order, unabashedly targeting their voting records and more.

We’re here to help. The Nevada Independent already produces fact-checks for political advertisements and off-the-cuff remarks, but we also want to get ahead of the campaign game.

When politicians announce their candidacy for public office, we’ll roll out “On the Record” — our look at their voting history and stances on a broad array of subjects.

Now up: Steve Wolfson, running for re-election for the position of Clark County District Attorney. Wolfson is facing off against fellow Democrat Rob Langford, with the winner of the June 12 primary automatically set to assume the position because no Republicans filed to run for the office.

Mass incarceration

Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson during an interview in his office at the Regional Justice Center on Tuesday, May 29, 2018. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Wolfson, who was appointed to lead the office in 2012 by the Clark County Commission and was elected to a four-year term in 2014, was eager to address bubbling complaints that his office has not done enough to stem the tide of mass incarceration. On a handout entitled “Accomplishments and Reforms” provided to a reporter, Wolfson detailed a list of changes his office had made to the incarceration process designed to address jail overcrowding, including:

  • Reducing “bindover dates,” where a defendant is “bound over” from one court to another (often because they entered a plea deal or because the case is going to trial) from seven to 10 days down to one or two days. Wolfson said the previous length of time was “absurd.”
  • Early release for low-level drug offenders, including not filing charges on controlled substance charges until the office gets a toxicology report back. The change means people arrested on a Thursday or Friday no longer have to stay in jail over the weekend before their 72-hour hearing, where charges are typically filed.
  • Reduce suspended sentences from six months to 30 to 60 days, except in DUI and domestic battery cases. Wolfson said reducing suspended sentences, which are imposed if a defendant fails to complete court-mandate activities such as community service, also applied retroactively to people sentenced with the longer suspended sentence.
  • “Discussions” with the sheriff on automatic or “O.R.” release (release without bail pending the outcome of the case) for all low-level drug arrests, including automatic release for all marijuana cases.
  • Quicker detention review before a judge for people taken into custody, from a two-to-three day period to 12 to 24 hours.
  • Empanelment of a third grand jury in Clark County, which Wolfson said leads to quicker preliminary hearings and resolutions for violent offenders to move their cases more quickly to a higher court. 

He also said that if re-elected, he would bring the 2019 Legislature a list of suggested changes to state law on a specialty diversion court for problem gambling, saying the current rarely-used system had no funding mechanism and was too narrowly constructed because it allowed cases to be automatically dismissed regardless of criminal history or payment of restitution.

Wolfson said he wasn’t a “magician,” and that many of the changes were brought about by the office partnering with other entities in the criminal justice system to find efficiencies.

“I think that our system is slow in instituting reforms to make our system better,” he said. “I think our system is slow in making progress. You know, the buzzword now is the ‘progressives.’ Well what is progressive? That’s progress. You know, the buzzword is reform. That’s changes to make the system better. I think our system is slow. Why? We’re more reactionary than visionary. And I think that’s a problem.”

Marijuana convictions

Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson during an interview in his office at the Regional Justice Center on Tuesday, May 29, 2018. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Wolfson reiterated that he has no plans to “unilaterally” seal or vacate minor marijuana convictions, a break from other jurisdictions including San Francisco, San Diego and Seattle which announced they would move to wipe out nonviolent marijuana convictions.

As he told the Las Vegas Review-Journal in March, Wolfson said he believed his office didn’t have the statutory authority to vacate or seal judgements in marijuana cases. A bill in the 2017 Legislature that in part would have allowed for sealing of records was vetoed by Gov. Brian Sandoval, and Wolfson said he was unsure whether he and his office would support a similar measure in 2019.

“I would like to have a discussion with our legislative leaders in preparation for the next session on what they would like to see in a bill to support the vacating of marijuana convictions,” he said. “There’s a lot of things involved in that because you’re talking about felonies and misdemeanors, so I would love to have a discussion with our legislative leaders about that subject.”

Wolfson said he hadn’t noticed any particular upticks in crime around the county’s recreational marijuana stores almost a year after the state officially gave them the green light to begin recreational sales. Outside of major drug trafficking and motorists driving under the influence of marijuana, Wolfson said his office wasn’t focused on marijuana.

“I don’t want to prosecute a 20-year-old for having a few joints, and we won’t,” he said. “The emphasis is not on marijuana cases.”

Question 1 and gun safety

Wolfson was a public and fervent supporter of Question 1 on the 2016 ballot, which would have required nearly all private-party gun sales or transfers within the state first undergo a background check. But the requirement has never been implemented, amid a longstanding dispute between state officials and the FBI — which under the ballot question is required to process the background checks but has refused to do so, despite repeated requests (most recently in March) by Gov. Brian Sandoval.

Asked what he would recommend the next governor to do differently to implement the ballot question, the district attorney said he or she should engage in a “continued dialogue” with the FBI that it is possible to implement the stalled initiative.

“There is a workaround, and if either Commissioner (Steve) Sisolak or Commissioner (Chris) Giunchigliani become our governor, I believe they’ve already pledged to do just that,” he said.

Although he penned a letter with two other prominent district attorneys in November calling for “immediate action” to implement the ballot measure, Wolfson said it wasn’t his place to directly intervene or take a leading role

“I’ve not had any dialogue with the FBI,” he said. “I don’t think it’s my place to. If I was asked to participate in that dialogue, I would, but they’re the ones that are in charge of implementation, not me.”

Cash bail

Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson during an interview in his office at the Regional Justice Center on Tuesday, May 29, 2018. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Wolfson’s primary opponent, Langford, has made ending the office’s use of commercial cash bail a cornerstone of his campaign, saying it targets the working poor and has no real impact on a person’s ability to show up to court. The concept of ending cash bail was also embraced by the two leading Democratic gubernatorial contenders at a debate last month.

Wolfson declined to adopt Langford’s position to outright end the practice of cash bail, but promoted his involvement on a committee developing a pretrial risk assessment tool program that gives judges more leeway in deciding if inmates should be locked up or released without bail.

“If we just don’t cause consequences to people that don’t return to court, don’t pay their fines, don’t pay their restitution, I don’t think we’re delivering justice to the victims,” he said. “So I don’t know if ending an entire cash bail system is the way to go. I’m willing to study it more. I like our risk assessment tool because like I said, flight risk or danger, you’re held. If you’re not a flight risk or danger, you’re released.”

Wolfson said the program has been in place for about six months in Clark County and still needed a few tweaks and said he was sympathetic to people negatively affected by having to pay bail bondsmen for minor criminal charges.

“There are too many people in jail on low bail amounts, and they’re in jail because they can’t afford the premiums,” he said. “That system is slowly changing because of our pre-trial risk assessment tool, which assesses flight risk or danger to the community, and if they’re neither, they’re released without bail.”

Fred Steese/Kristin Lobato

In November 2017, the Nevada Board of Pardons granted a full pardon to 54-year-old Fred Steese, convicted in 1995 for a gruesome murder in Las Vegas. He was released after spending 21 years in prison and after a district court judge issued an order that essentially declared he hadn’t killed anyone.

The vote to pardon Steese, which was unanimous sans Republican Attorney General Adam Laxalt, who first sought to abstain on the vote, was called a “clear rebuke” to prosecutors in the Clark County district attorney’s Office by ProPublica, which along with Vanity Fair carefully chronicled the case and found evidence that prosecutors had withheld evidence that could have proved Steese’s innocence during the original case.

Despite the pardon being issued, Wolfson said he still believed Steese had committed the murder.

“I do believe he’s guilty, yes,” he said. “He pled guilty,”

Steese was released from prison on an Alford plea, which allowed him to continue to assert his innocence while accepting a plea deal that would allow him to be released from prison. He declined to say if he agreed or disagreed with the pardons board’s decision.

“Guilt and pardoned are two different things,” he said. “I would have to see and have them presented with all the information that the Pardon’s Board was presented with, like all of his background. What he did while he was in prison. Was he a model prisoner? I’m not privy to all the information that the Pardon’s Board was, so it’s hard for me to second guess what other people did.”

Wolfson also maintained his belief in the guilt of Kirstin Lobato, who was twice charged and convicted in a 2001 murder case but was released in January 2018 amid an effort by The Innocence Project found she received ineffective counsel in her original case and was entitled to a new trial.

Wolfson said he believed Lobato was guilty, but said his office asked for the charges to be dismissed with prejudice because she was up for parole soon and that retrying the case had little point.

“We felt in the interest of justice and the best use of resources, to not try her again,” he said. “Because if we tried her again, she would not have gotten any more prison time. She had served out her sentence. She was coming up for parole like within months of the judge’s decision. So what more would we get out of the case?”

Although he maintained that both Steese and Lobato were guilty, he said he didn’t believe the release of either individual presented a danger to the public.

“I think that time changes a lot of things,” he said. “I’ve never met either of these folks personally, but based upon everything I know, I believe that neither of them are probably dangerous.”

Death penalty

Between 2011 and 2015, Clark County sought the death penalty in 52 cases, and juries returned nine sentences over that time frame. The numbers make Clark County an outlier among counties that actively pursue and obtain the death penalty, and the numbers have been used as political fodder for Wolfson’s political opponents who have accused him of being too eager to pursue lethal sentences.

Wolfson said his office had reduced the number of death penalty filings since he took office in 2013, but still defended his office’s continual seeking of the penalty in murder cases, in part by citing its high approval in public polls.

“The death penalty is still a law in the state of Nevada,” he said. “So as the chief prosecutor for this county, I believe in the enforcement of giving the jury the option of determining whether or not somebody should receive the death penalty.”

Wolfson said he was undeterred by arguments that seeking the penalty wasted money given the immense litigation costs associated with not only pursuing a death penalty but also fighting through years of appeals — only one of the 12 people executed in Nevada since 1977 “volunteered” for the sentence by giving up further appeals.

“Yes, death penalty cases are expensive, but so are life imprisonment cases, because we’ve seen the figures,” he said. “Lawyers will still fight and challenge life imprisonment without the possibility of parole cases and they will probably fight them just as hard as they would death penalty cases.”

A 2014 audit conducted by the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Counsel Bureau found it cost the state about $532,000 more to pursue a death penalty case than other murder cases where a lethal sentence was not sought. The audit also noted that the cost of a death penalty case was only “slightly higher” than cases where life without the possibility of parole were sought.

Wolfson, who makes the final decision on whether or not the office pursues the death penalty, said he was also seeking an extension of the time granted the district attorney to decide whether to pursue the death penalty from 30 days to six months in order to allow defense attorneys more time to prepare mitigation and any rationale for why the penalty shouldn't be used.

“So they come into this death penalty assessment, sometimes they’ve only had the case for a few weeks or a month and a half. They barely know about their client,” he said. “So the process by which they try and present me with information to try and convince me not to file is not a good one.”

Drug testing

A 2016 story by ProPublica and the Las Vegas Review-Journal found that thousands of drug-related arrests and convictions every year in Clark County were being driven by inexpensive illegal drug testing kits used by police that routinely produced false positive tests.

Although other jurisdictions, most notably Houston, stopped using the tests because of concerns with their reliability, Wolfson defended the practice in an interview.

“Well, they were generally reliable at the time,” he said. “We have a new system in place now. We’re not using that same field test product, if you will. In fact, when it was brought to our attention that there were some problems, we did a check on all cases where there were problems and we caused the vacation of certain convictions because of problematic test in those.”

Wolfson said the office may have retested about 15 cases that had problems but didn’t remember if the review was for all drug arrests for just those where problems were raised.

“You’re asking me to comment about a subject matter that I haven’t reviewed in two years, so I don’t have specific recollection about a lot of that stuff,” he said.

Political future

Wolfson declined to directly answer whether he would serve out a full four-year term if re-elected, saying his focus was on winning the June 12 election.

He said he had previously been approached about running for U.S. Senate, but decided to instead for run for re-election.

“The timing is everything, and at the time I believed that my best course of action, taking into account my family and my career and the love I have for the office that I lead right now, that it was best for me to stay where I am,” he said.

Wolfson also said he wasn’t endorsing Giunchigliani or Sisolak in the state’s Democratic gubernatorial primary.

Disclosure: Steve Sisolak and Chris Giunchigliani have donated to The Nevada Independent. You can see a full list of donors here.

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