Smart prison reform

Two recent studies on Nevada’s use and misuse of prisons deserve to be at the top of Gov. Guinn’s list for reading and action. One is from the state’s own Study Committee on Corrections. The other, released June 2, is the U.S. Department of Justice study on imprisonment and recidivism (the return of former inmates to crime and prison).

The Justice Department’s study indicated a national crisis in recidivism. A 15-state survey found that two-thirds of those released were caught returning to crime or breaking the terms of their parole within three years, and that this percentage is growing. Various states have reduced programs for prisoners since the 1980s, including drug treatment, vocational education, literacy efforts and transition from prison to civilian life. Each retreat contributed to the high rates of early return to incarceration.

The Nevada Committee on Corrections, chaired by Director Jackie Crawford of the Department of Corrections, also recently adopted a progressive, bipartisan report to the governor that focused on recidivism. Persuasive statistics demonstrated Nevada’s tendency to house prisoners who could easily be kept in minimum-security camps in expensive “hard beds,” instead. The report examined the growing problem of male inmates over 60 years of age (more than 300 of them) due to recent hardening of sentencing and parole policies; increasing numbers of substance abusers, sex offenders and the mentally ill in need of treatment and the lack of vocational training needed for post-prison employment.

Paying attention to these reports could mean major positive impacts on Nevada’s prison revolving door. In the long term, a considerable amount of money will be saved by stopping the building of hard beds for prisoners who don’t need high levels of security.

Corrections Director Jackie Crawford spoke passionately about the anti-recidivism aspects of this study at the recent Symposium on Criminal Justice held at the National Judicial College and sponsored by the Sawyer Center for Justice Studies. She deserves strong support for her common-sense goal of sending inmates out of prison—there are 4,000 or more exiting each year in Nevada—with the necessary education, training, transitional supervision and initial cash to begin a new life. The state saves tens of millions of dollars when they do not reoffend.

Support for “intermediate (non-prison) sanctions” for parolees who commit minor or moderate violations alone would be worth the effort that went into this report. Far too many of the current parolees are being returned to prison because the system lacks flexibility.

Prisons are a huge expense for the state of Nevada. They take a steadily increasing share of the state’s general fund away from education and social services. These two reports place the proper emphasis on what the governor and the Nevada Legislature can do to solve problems. Yet there are other subjects left largely untouched, including needed changes in sentencing statutes. Nevada’s average prison term is well above the national average, and criminal sentences have almost always been increased from one legislative session to the next. Sometimes criminal sentences have to be moderated in response to financial and security considerations that point in the same direction.