Taxpayer alert

Since the 1960s, legislative measures to increase criminal penalties, make parole more difficult to obtain, and create new crimes have been popular with politicians in the Nevada Legislature. The result has been a very high Nevada incarceration rate and one of the nation's most expensive criminal justice systems, according to intermittent reports, including some from the U.S. Department of Justice.

The current Nevada Legislature is no exception. According to a report released May 11 by the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, 44 “get tough” bills are pending in Carson City. Though the report does not provide a cumulative figure for the cost of all the measures, some of them bear fiscal notes outlining the costs that would be incurred if they are enacted.

Tough-on-crime bills drove prison construction costs so much at one point that, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the two house judiciary committees required a cumulative assessment of all such bills each session before any of them were allowed to the full houses for votes. They also prevailed on legislators to cool the get-tough rhetoric and pursued, with the cooperation of prison officials, less expensive alternatives, particularly for nonviolent offenders. The result, according to former Assembly Judiciary chair Robert Sader, was that the state avoided having to build one new prison as the incarceration rate slowed.

But cumulative assessment fell by the wayside with turnover in the legislature and criminal justice costs started climbing again.

Assemblymember Michele Fiori has one bill that goes the other way—Assembly Bill 281, which would treat some traffic offenses civilly instead of criminally. It was amended into a study of the idea, passed the Assembly and is awaiting action in the Senate. But that is an exception to most criminal justice bills.

The ACLU report can be read at