Crime doesn’t pay

With legislators beating the drum for harsh criminal penalties and a little help from the Iraq war, Nevada is back in a financial corner

Sen. Mark Amodei, who oversees the judiciary committee that processes anti-crime legislation, chats with Truckee Meadows officials who want penalties hiked for graffiti offenses.

Sen. Mark Amodei, who oversees the judiciary committee that processes anti-crime legislation, chats with Truckee Meadows officials who want penalties hiked for graffiti offenses.

Photo By Dennis Myers

Sen. Mark Amodei of Carson City was on his way out to lunch after the morning Senate session when he encountered some Reno municipal officials. The group chatted, joked and laughed for a few minutes, and then Amodei was on his way again. It could have been taken for just a social encounter. But camaraderie is the coin of the realm in a legislative setting, and the Reno officials want something from Amodei—harsher penalties for graffiti. The legislation will have to go through the committee he chairs in the Senate—Judiciary.

Amodei and his counterpart in the other house, Bernie Anderson of Sparks, are on hot seats. After years of having room to spare in the state’s prisons, the state is now facing some hard choices—and some expensive ones.

“We were housing prisoners from other states until two years ago,” Anderson said.

“Three or four years ago, we were kind of flat,” Amodei said of the state’s prison population growth rate. “I remember one ‘state of the state’ [the governor] looked up at Jackie Crawford and said what a great job she’d done because we got away with a cycle or two of not having to do much” prison construction.

Jackie Crawford was a prison director who threw her heart and soul into planning less expensive alternative and transition programs designed to reduce the number of repeat offenders recycled through the system and she got so little support for that effort from the prison administration—the state workers association kept complaining about her—that she left state service.

Today, the state is concerned that it may face a federal takeover of prisons unless it comes to grip with the problem. How close is that possibility?

“Pretty close, I understand,” Anderson said. “Close enough that we’re talking about it.”

At this year’s legislature, there are many increased penalty bills, from crimes against the homeless to terrorism to more enhanced penalties for weapons used in the commission of crimes. It’s all a familiar story in Nevada. For many years in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, state legislators got elected to the legislature by running for sheriff, promising to get tough on crime.

They then enacted a seemingly endless series of anti-crime measures that increased penalties, created new criminal offenses, and made parole more difficult to achieve. By 1989, a larger portion of Nevada taxpayers’ tax burden was devoted to penology than those in all but two other states, according to a U.S. Justice Department study. Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa said that prison spending was “eating Nevada taxpayers alive” and without much effect on Nevada’s standing in crime rankings.

In the mid-1980s, the legislative judiciary chairs—Robert Sader in the Assembly and Sue Wagner in the Senate—began using new committee procedures to try to get a handle on the problem and also threw personal pressure into the effort. They prevailed on fellow lawmakers to cool the anti-crime bombast and worked to amend some of the harshest measures. Most of all, they started holding all the anti-crime bills for cumulative assessments of their financial cost. The fiscal impact of one or two bills was easy to ignore, but when the cost of all the bills was added up, it gave lawmakers a better look at the financial consequences. Gradually, Wagner and Sader had an impact. The number of anti-crime bills enacted was reduced. The prison population never went down, but the rate of growth began to slow.

At one point, one wing of the Nevada State Prison—Carson City’s max—was closed down. Not only that, one entire prison—Southern Nevada Correctional Center—was mothballed in 2000. It had to be reopened in 2005.

But when Sader and Wagner left the legislature, the cumulative assessment procedure was dropped, and today the state is right back where it started.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada used to sponsor overcrowding lawsuits to force the state to provide better conditions for inmates in the hope the state would seriously consider alternatives and fewer anti-crime measures. ACLU leader Richard Siegel said the group backed away from that technique when it found that the principal outcome was that the state simply built more prisons.

“If you build them, we will fill them,” Assemblymember Chris Giunchigliani said in 2005. The proof of that comes in an ACLU report that says incarceration went up as crime went down: “The crime rate in Nevada has fallen sharply since 1995, while available prison beds grew steadily between 1994 and 2001. As such, Nevada almost doubled the number of prison beds since 1992 for a population that committed no additional violent crimes. Overall crimes per 100,000 people fell from an index high of 8,831 for all crimes in 1980 to a low of 4,510.0 in 2002. There was an increase to 4,848 between 2002 and 2005, but that represents a very small rise compared to the extraordinary drop between 1980 and 2002. The absolute incidence of violent crime (the actual number of crimes, not the rate per capita) did not, despite Nevada’s rapid population growth, increase from its highpoint of 1994 through 2004.”

Anderson said Nevada now has the third-highest incarceration rate in the nation. County sheriffs are also complaining about their jails being overcrowded.

Anderson attributes the difficult problem the state is facing now to a variety of problems. “There are about 10 factors, and they combine to create the perfect storm,” he says. Among those factors:

• “Enhanced sentencing” legislation—bills that require higher penalties if other factors are involved, such as “hate” or gun use.

• Mandatory minimums, which reduce the ability of judges to assess each case on its own circumstances.

• “The rurals have no treatment programs, so they send their offenders to prison in the belief that they’ll get treatment there.”

• Methamphetamine, which have reportedly become a crime-producing industry unlike some other illegal drugs.

• A striking rise in female offenders.

Gov. Jim Gibbons has proposed a $1.9 billion prison budget over the next decade. Right now, nearly all the approved projects on the state’s capital improvement list are higher education or prisons, leaving little for things like streets and highways.

Nor is it likely that things will get better soon, according to Anderson, because of an expected “rising youthful offender population.”

Meanwhile, less expensive and often more effective alternative programs that Crawford and many state lawmakers championed have gone into decline. Education, vocational training, diversions into drug treatment and mental health programs, and transitional programs so that inmates did not go straight from prison to the street all depended heavily on federal funds.

“Because of the war, those dollars disappeared,” Anderson said.

“In earlier sessions, we were talking about if the diversion program would work. Well, the diversion program worked—but then the funding ran out.”

After eight years of a governor, Kenny Guinn, who did not go in for harsh anti-crime rhetoric, Gibbons is being closely watched. In a way, he has to deal with the consequences of his votes as a member of Congress, where he voted against funding for prison alternatives and for harsher prosecution and sentencing of juvenile crime.

Gibbons’ prison spending has been criticized by the ACLU of Nevada, which produced a paper that said, “Construction of more prison facilities, along with the extraordinary operating expenses necessary to run them constitutionally and effectively, is an expensive and inefficient band-aid for a problem that calls for a long-term sea change in the legislative mentality of incarceration.”

Republican Amodei said that, given the availability of research and studies, if lawmakers continue pushing for punitive measures, they will have no excuse for not knowing the end result.

“There is more and more stuff out there that said, ‘Hey, you can go be the toughest guy or girl you want to on crime, but know that when you do that, you need prosecutors, you need cops, you need investigators, you need DAs, you need parole and probation, you need corrections, you need this whole domino cascading effect.'"—Amodei had never heard of it—they still have a lot of options as committee chairs and thus as gatekeepers.

Anderson, for instance, is making sure that those who sit on the subcommittees that handle anti-crime bills are legislators who also sit on the Assembly’s budget committee, Ways and Means, and thus are aware of the impact on state spending of such enactments. When Assembly Bill 14, increasing the graffiti penalty to a class E felony (one to four years in prison), comes before subcommittee members, they will know its financial implications.